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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Even as things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Much Ado About Nothing
New York Shakespeare Festival and Marquee.tv        Spring 2023

One of the most delightful productions ever of Shakespeare's romantic comedy is this 1972 American television version, which I thought long lost but which now turns up online. I recommend it without reservation.

This is the one in which Shakespeare invented a plot premise that has been copied by at least 75% of all the romantic comedies written ever since the feuding couple who are so obviously made for each other that we can just sit back and wait for them to figure it out themselves.

(A short pause for you to think of twenty or more films and TV rom-coms built on that model)

Having invented the genre, Shakespeare immediately developed a twist on it, by having the friends of Benedick and Beatrice, not content as we are to let them discover their attraction, push them together in a comic way.

They let him listen in as they make up tales of how much she loves him, and let her overhear them talk about how crazy he supposedly is about her, and so we get the additional fun of watching the couple process this information.

(There's also a more serious subplot a groom tricked into thinking his bride unfaithful publicly shames her, so that he must then prove himself worthy of forgiveness. But audiences for 400 years have not let that distract them from the much more interesting and entertaining adventure of Benedick and Beatrice.)

A. J. Antoon's production began in the New York Shakespeare Festival's free Shakespeare-in-Central-Park and moved to Broadway before being restaged for television.

It's set at the start of the Twentieth Century, a period that has much the same mythic air of innocence and endless summer as the Edwardian age has in Britain.

The central couple are played by Sam Waterston (other stage and film credits culminating in 20 years on the TV crime show Law And Order) and Kathleen Widdoes (other stage and film credits culminating in 20 years on the TV soap As The World Turns).

Both seem impossibly young and beautiful, and both have the unusual ability to play both intelligent and foolish at the same time.

Waterston's Benedick is witty and quick-thinking but clearly a total naif, while Widdoes uses her round face, big eyes and Julia-Roberts-size smile to make Beatrice adorable even when she is being sharp-tongued.

At the centre of the play are the two eavesdropping scenes. Waterston shows Benedick racing through amazement, disbelief, conviction, delight and swooning lovesickness in a matter of seconds, while also milking all the comedy out of a man trying to hide from people who know exactly where he is.

Having found all the fun in that sequence, director Antoon and Kathleen Widdoes take the audacious step of playing Beatrice's parallel scene more seriously, letting the actress betray her character's romantic yearnings by having her transported with delight at the prospect of being loved.

(Not totally abandoning the scene's comedy, the director also finds a funny way of explaining something almost no other production even notices that Beatrice has a head cold the next time we see her.)

It is not a two-scene play. The fun of the verbal sparring between the lovers-to-be early in the play is matched by the sweetness of their later admission of their feelings.

A troupe of comic night watchmen, too often among the least funny of Shakespeare's clowns, are turned literally into Keystone Kops, complete with speeded-up camera, pratfalls and custard pies.

Douglass Watson is an avuncular Don Pedro, and the embarrassing moment when he impulsively proposes to Beatrice is handled with generous charm and delicacy.

I may have seen individual moments in this play done as well in other productions, but never a whole package as happy, warm, romantic, comic and just plain fun as this.

Gerald Berkowitz
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Review of Much Ado About Nothing - NY Shakespeare Festival (1972) -  2023
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