$10 tickets! Much Ado About Nothing comes to The Duke Theater

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare’s comic-epic battle of the sexes, serves as a bracing reminder that nothing men and women have attempted to do together—love, sex, romance, courtship and marriage—has ever come easily.  Anyone who thinks our present generation faces obstacles to love that are unique and unmatched in human history probably hasn’t seen this play, and frankly hasn’t read much romantic literature of any kind. Much Ado About Nothing. photo credit Duke Theater

Among the perks of being a student in New York City are continual opportunities to see top-shelf theatrical productions at deep discounts.  And there is none deeper than the student discount at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street, showing director Arin Arbus’s production of Much Ado About Nothing now through April 6, where you can get a $75 ticket for only $10.  Ten dollars, less than the price of a bland blockbuster at the AMC theater next door, to watch two world-class actors claw each other to pieces with words from England’s greatest poet.

In the first act alone, characters compare romance to “killing,” “war,” “skirmish,” “conflict,” “disease,” “pestilence,” “infection.”  The play’s leading lady and gentleman, Beatrice and Benedick, wisely want nothing to do with it.  “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me,” Beatrice says, and Benedick claims he will never confess love to the opposite sex—he would rather be overcome “with anger, with sickness or with hunger,” even “die at the stake.”  If he ever gets married, he tells his friends, “pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen ... hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me.”  When Beatrice’s uncle Leonato tells her she is too cynical on the subject of marriage, she retorts, “I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight.”  Weddings and funerals are both performed in the same space, and Beatrice knows the two are linked, each a ceremony of death.

Maggie Siff (of Mad Men), who plays Beatrice in the current production, delivers these lines with a calm, flat sarcasm that makes them even more cutting than they would be if shouted or delivered angrily.  Characters in Much Ado don’t tell jokes so much as they deliver putdowns, which are more or less clever and funny.

The first insult Beatrice fires at her nemesis isn’t clever at all:  “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick; no one marks you.”  Siff’s eyebrows arch with tired disdain, and the edges of her mouth curl up, as if she is simultaneously laughing and choking back a gag.  Her voice echoes a blasé prep-school queen bee—Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl—who’s had her fill of stupid boys and slices up their pretensions with calm cruelty.

Siff starred in Arbus’s production of Taming of the Shrew last year, and her rage-filled Katherine Minola dominated everyone else on stage.  This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing from an audience perspective, but I imagine it was distressing for the actor playing Petruchio, who was supposed to be “taming” her.  Though in fairness, the idea that the blustery Petruchio could ever steamroll fiery Kate is hard to believe even in Shakespeare’s original text.

Whatever the reasons for the earlier play’s imbalance, this time Siff has found a worthy opponent in English actor Jonathan Cake.  Cake plays Benedick literally as a poser, forever adjusting his stance as if trying to present his best profile.  His legs get even shiftier when Beatrice is on stage, as she watches him impassively, and the brilliant macho lines he delivered with such gusto to his soldier friends dry up.

Arbus’s decision to let both actors play with their native accents—Siff is a New Yorker—adds an interesting layer to the conflict.  Not just a battle of the sexes, their clash is Old World versus New, refined British wit versus blunt American sarcasm.  My patriotic heart thrilled to see the all-American girl put the English dandy in his place, but he does put up a good fight.  At one remarkable moment, alone and contemplating his vision of a perfect woman, Cake’s Benedick actually flirts with the crowd, pointing to women in the audience and enumerating their virtues.  We’re won over in that moment, ready to see him find love—then Beatrice appears again and promptly cuts him down to size.

Arbus’s direction was apparently influenced by literary critic Harold Bloom’s reading of the play—she quotes it at length in the playbill and on the production’s website.  Bloom calls Much Ado “the most amiably nihilistic play ever written” and its romantic leads “Nietzscheans long before Nietzsche ... With every exchange between the fencing lovers, the abyss glitters.”  Arbus clearly wants to show us this glittering abyss at several moments, by letting characters give full vent to dark emotions—Leonato wishing his daughter Hero dead after she is accused of infidelity; Benedick challenging his friend Claudio, the accuser, to a duel; the crushing guilt of two villains who think Hero has died for their lies.  Dramatic silences often linger a beat too long for comfort, which can give otherwise unnoticed exchanges a melancholy tone.

Perhaps what Bloom perceives as nihilism in the play, however, is not despair or a negation of all transcendent meaning, but simply helplessness in the face of a biological imperative.

Benedick seems to have something like this in mind with his famous line, “The world must be peopled.”  It comes at the end of a soliloquy in which he considers the costs and benefits of declaring his love to Beatrice, whom he has been tricked into believing she loves him.  In the production I attended, the audience gave a huge laugh when Cake delivered this line, but such a reaction is not inevitable—it doesn’t stand out as especially humorous in the text, or in Kenneth Branagh’s film version.  But Cake’s voice is filled with such exasperation, we instantly perceive with him the absurdity of his situation.  He is a healthy young man, a soldier, returned home safe from war to find a beautiful, eligible young woman madly in love with him: what possible reason could he have for resisting the impulse to make babies?  Benedick realizes his foolishness at the same time we do, so we laugh, not because life is meaningless, but because we recognize there is a power greater than all of the characters, futile to resist.

The principal actors, with their pathos and humanity, ultimately work against their director’s apparent goal—though perhaps this is exactly what Arbus intends.  One of the darkest scenes they render humane comes when Benedick viciously rails against Beatrice to his commanding officer, calling her a “harpy,” “a dish I love not,” and “Lady Tongue.”  In Shakespeare’s stage directions, it’s unclear how much of this speech Beatrice hears, but Arbus has Benedick deliver it practically to her face, and the audience sits in stunned silence.  The abyss opens beneath us.  But then Siff’s Beatrice responds and fills the stage with an emotion we haven’t yet seen, and invests the exchange with meaning that extends beyond the play.

As Benedick storms away, the commander Don Pedro notes that Beatrice has lost the young man’s heart, and she says, “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one.  Marry, once before he won it with false dice.”

Beyond informing the audience that Benedick and Beatrice have a history, this response effectively explains Beatrice’s hard-edged attitude throughout the play—she didn’t begin her life suspicious of men, but she’s learned to be gun-shy.  The director Joss Whedon, in his recent film version of Much Ado, depicts these lines in flashback as a one-night stand, which is certainly a plausible reading; the phrase “gave him use,” which means to borrow money at interest, also makes a sexual double entendre.  But whether Benedick and Beatrice’s former relationship was physically intimate or not, the story she tells is an old one—after the man gets what he wants, he moves on to fresh conquests—and a corrective to the idea that casual hook-ups, and the wounds they leave behind, are a recent invention.

It takes an intensely committed and talented actor to turn on an emotional dime as Siff does in this moment.  She stares after the retreating Benedick, not with the wry smile we have grown accustomed to, but with a blank look of regret.  The mask has slipped.  When she speaks, the flat sarcasm has disappeared and her voice fills with honest warmth.  She remains vulnerable for only an instant, before jumping back to the safety of ironic wit, but the revelation of pain beneath her humor stays with us.

As Benedick, Cake achieves an equally impressive feat—he conveys a similar sense of yearning and loss, but without ever letting the mask fall completely.  His eyes often seem strangely unfocused, as he looks slightly above or around other characters, or glances at them sideways, as if he’s afraid to look anyone fully in the eye and confront the truth about himself.

When he speaks in soliloquy, we sense that the braggadocio is a veneer, though a tough one, that hides a much more appealing real person beneath.  He never melts with sadness in the same way as Beatrice, but after he decides in his mind to fall “horribly in love with her,” his heart readily follows and the veneer cracks.  He turns giddy and earnest then, eyes wide, pacing the stage with manic excitement.  Whatever we may think of Benedick on the page, Cake’s version is no nihilist, but a picture of redemptive hope.

I can confidently report these physical minutiae because I was sitting in the front row, and at times Siff, Cake, and others were close enough to touch.  At one point, I had to pull my legs back quickly so the villain Don John wouldn’t trip as he ran through the front aisle (though that could have taken the play in an interesting new direction).  There isn’t a bad seat in the Duke Theater’s small house, but the closer the better.

Of course, Beatrice and Benedick aren’t the only characters in Much Ado.  A valuable service Theater for a New Audience provides with its Shakespeare productions is the chance to watch older stage actors with long careers behind them—such as Robert Langdon Lloyd and John Christopher Jones, playing Leonato and the constable Dogberry, respectively—who bring a palpable sense of life experience to their roles.

It’s not a perfect production—just read the New York Times’s petty review if you’re looking for a reason not to attend.  But if you’re in town and looking for entertainment over Spring Break, you won’t find a better deal in the city.

Prof. Campbell is a TKC writing instructor and resident Shakespeare scholar.