Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) upcoming production of “Much Ado About Nothing” finally opens at Harman Hall this November. First announced to end artistic director Simon Godwin’s inaugural season at STC in May 2020, the production was halted because of the pandemic.
This play was altered specifically for D.C.’s media savvy audience. Set in a contemporary cable newsroom, the script — adapted with Godwin’s frequent collaborator Emily Burns at the National Theatre of London where he remains an associate director — contains news breaks about tragic deaths in Verona and news tickers expressing the latest about the Wars of the Roses in England. With television monitors looping news footage onstage, this “Much Ado” may be the Bard of Avon by way of Ivo van Hove.
Godwin took advantage of his D.C. surroundings and completed his political media homework in preparation, attending a pre-pandemic (and pre-signoff) taping of “Hardball with Chris Matthews” and a special segment of “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski at the Atlantic Festival event held at Harman Hall. The formerly politically opposed co-hosts who ended up married seem the perfect analogue for Shakespeare’s sparring cable news co-hosts Beatrice and Benedick, as played by Broadway veterans Kate Jennings Grant and Rick Holmes.
Godwin is known for his modern, streamlined takes on Shakespeare, cutting and adapting the scripts, and updating costumes and settings. He judiciously removes hackneyed jokes and archaic dirty puns. If it’s confusing to watch an old episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” or “SNL’s” Weekend Update and understand the references made a decade ago, why would we care about an Elizabethan jab about the French dauphin? Gone. Godwin’s taut scripts and clear directorial vision allow for deeper explorations of the human spirit and our interconnectedness.
Many characters in his Shakespearean productions are fleshed out in exciting new ways, from the Malvolia (Tamsin Grieg), a closeted woman who pines after her younger employer in “Twelfth Night,” to the overly generous philanthropist Timon of Athens (Kathryn Hunter), who goes goblin mode after her friends all abandon her. Godwin has a power in making Shakespeare feel modern, immediate and accessible. Just look at the neon-hued, graffiti-covered Elsinore castle and the startling likable prince (the magnificent Paapa Essiedu) he directed in the Black cast of “Hamlet” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which toured across the U.S. and visited the Kennedy Center before his tenure at STC.
Or check out his incredibly sexy “Romeo & Juliet” starring bright young things Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley. Filmed on a minimal soundstage at the National Theatre of London (after the stage production was canceled due to the pandemic), this adaptation collapses time so when the lovers’ hands or lips touch, we see first flirty glances, deep kisses and their deaths all intercut. Verona is claustrophobic and the film also follows a second tragic love story between Mercutio and Benvolio.
Airing on PBS as part of the “Great Performances” series, this is not a production for all time, but of a particular time when touching could be deadly. Kisses and shared air were even deadlier, and quarantines and lockdowns were our daily routines. We all lived — and some died — in this 2020 Verona.
Expect the Unexpected
“I just aim to make his plays speak vividly and entertainingly today,” Godwin states about his Shakespearean adaptations.
That is, expect the unexpected in “Much Ado.” Go in knowing Godwin has paved new avenues of exploration while cutting some superfluous archaisms. For example, Godwin sees this production as “the original fake news story.”
Despite the comedy’s meet-cutes and multiple weddings, Godwin also explains there is a “darkness and light both within the play, a tension between these forces. In the second half of this play, there is a certain degree of psychological violence. Yet it is undeniably a ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’”
At the climax of the play, the faithful bride Hero is accused of adultery with dire consequences. We can see how the sexual politics of 400 years ago may continue to inform modern productions of the play. In modern terms, the vicious rumor against Hero is fake news and she is slut shamed. And if the dastardly Don John isn’t an incel, he is at least the worst offender in a culture of toxic masculinity.
But Godwin warns about looking for too many contemporary resonances as 21st century Easter eggs.
“My drift is always toward the mythical or the archetypal,” Godwin says. “I’m not exact about these [modern] references because sometimes they can be traps; someone will want to disprove your idea.”
“In a way, all the worlds one creates for Shakespeare will be an amalgam of Shakespeare’s world, your own influences and the influences of the actors or the design team,” he continues. “There’s probably a little bit of a retrograde quality to this world because I’m consciously using stock characters. The news, the sports, the weather: There’s something archetypal even in our world about these types.”
Within this Jungian approach, Godwin considers the universal appeal of Beatrice and Benedick’s love story as a “story of transformation from the sort of contained and fearful relationship of the two protagonists to opening their hearts and bodies to each other. This has taken on a new poignancy as we culturally — and as a planet — also learn to trust each other.”
In that sense, Beatrice and Benedick are the archetypal will-they-or-won’t-they couple. So many of our romantic comedies that pair up two former enemies — “Philadelphia Story,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days” — are indebted to Shakespeare’s romantic jousting between the incredibly witty Beatrice and the (almost) as clever Benedick.
An Inexhaustible Variance
This summer at the National Theatre of London, Godwin even directed a completely different production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” set in the Italian Riviera during the 1930s at seaside resort Hotel Messina.
“I’ve certainly never been in situations where I presented the same play in the same year and setting on two different continents,” Godwin says. “It’s a tribute to the inexhaustible variance and colors of Shakespeare I remain fascinated about. There’s just an endless degree of surprises. There was a certain romance and historicism in this [National Theatre] version. And there’s a much greater commitment to making something more immediately prescient in Washington, D.C. with the newsroom. It’ll be interesting taking on an edgier version of this play.”
Later this season, Godwin will direct one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: “King Lear.” Starring Broadway’s favorite villain Patrick Page — who was also the solo actor in STC’s streaming production of “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain” — Godwin finds “King Lear” offers timeless stories about personal transformation, familial angst, filial devotion and “how suffering brings us terrible knowledge.”
But, without going into specifics, Godwin finds political significance ripped from the headlines, too.
“We are in the grip of certain situations where older statesmen are territorially ambitious in ways that are causing geopolitical conflicts,” he says. “‘King Lear’ is both a domestic tragedy but also a geopolitical play. One can’t help but think of these conflicts we’re all trying to understand today.”
“Much Ado About Nothing” opens at Shakespeare Theatre Company on November 10. Purchase tickets at shakespearetheatre.org
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