Much Ado About Nothing goes to the movies

Bard on the Beach’s fest-opening production inhabits a black-and-white world inspired by La Dolce Vita

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      As the Bard on the Beach crew moves around Vespas, movie-light stands, projection screens, and intricately grey-scaled flowerpots in the tent at Vanier Park, the scenery looks more like one of the famous old Cinecittà sound stages than a Shakespeare festival’s Elizabethan setting.

      But that’s exactly the point with director John Murphy’s fest-opening new rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, a La Dolce Vita–flavoured reimagining of the romantic comedy, set in the 1950s during the golden age of Italian cinema. He and the Bard design team have gone to town, staging it in the black-and-white tones of an old Federico Fellini film—even opening the show with a quick, wordless prelude that features the shooting of three classically Italian movies. (And yes, ovviamente, there’s a spaghetti-western bit.)

      “I’ve always wanted to set it in the 20th century because it feels like a very modern play. Beatrice feels like a very modern character; as far as I’m concerned she’s the first feminist character in English literature,” says Murphy, sitting up in the main-stage-tent stands, observing the crew as they set up the stage for rehearsal. “And with the language, 70 percent of it is in prose instead of blank verse—so there is a more natural feel to the language. It’s closer in syntax and structure to the way we talk today. It captures witty, funny people improvising, the way it’s written.”

      But Murphy, who fell in love with the script while playing the committed bachelor Benedick at Bard in 2010, knew that he would have to set it in an era when women still faced oppression—not least of all because there’s an arranged marriage in the show, between the young Claudio and Hero. Later on, her father, Leonato, tells Hero she must wed the older, high-status Don Pedro if he asks. Further complicating things, there’s a scheme to bust apart Claudio and Hero, and yet another plot to get Beatrice and Benedick together at the altar. The latter couple are long-time, sharp-tongued acquaintances who have both sworn never to get hitched—and who are blind to the fact they’re perfectly matched.

      “When Shakespeare wrote this in 1599, women had no rights, so I was thinking, ‘In Italy, what time would work with that but also have the ebullience and buoyancy of a golden age as well?’ So I started thinking of the 1950s,” enthuses Murphy, an eight-year acting and directing Bard veteran who took a similar leap in moving a 2013 production of Measure for Measure from Vienna to circa-1900 New Orleans. “I was raised Irish Catholic, and thinking about Catholicism in the 1950s, I think it’s a really interesting time for women because they’re on the cusp of feminism, but they’re not quite there. They’re provocative in their dress, they can smoke, they can ride Vespas, they can wear capris and headscarves and do whatever they want, supposedly, but when the chips are down and your dad says you’re a whore, and wishes you were dead because he thinks you slept around when you were supposed to be a virgin… It was hard-core and intense.”

      As Murphy plunged into his research, and a whack of old Fellini films, a year and a half ago, the setting started to make more and more sense. In the original Much Ado About Nothing, many of the male characters are soldiers coming back from war. But Murphy found the shift to making them film directors and actors could happen without changing too much of the plot—and that it would help emphasize some of the themes. So, now, Leonato is a movie producer, and Don Pedro is a Fellini-esque auteur—one who often madly types out scripts for his plans of deception.

      Many of the other roles are movie actors—Hero, Benedick, and Claudio—the untouchable royalty, Murphy says, of the celebrity-obsessed 1950s.

      Perhaps one of his biggest alterations is making Don John, the villain who connives to wrench Claudio and Hero apart, a woman. In Murphy’s version, actor Laara Sadiq becomes Donna Johnna, a sleek, platinum-cropped baddie who wears tuxedos and who was modelled after a character in 8 1/2. Even more fun, she’s a failed filmmaker who’s become a paparazzo—a reference to the celebrity chasers in La Dolce Vita.

      Director John Murphy says Shakespeare's Elizabethan script feels like a very modern play.

      Donna Johnna ends up carrying through the feminist theme, an offset to the character of Beatrice, who refuses to be subservient and marry. “Donna Johnna feels frustrated by women’s place in society, so it’s a nice kind of dark mirror to Beatrice: Beatrice still manages to find joy in life and be cheerful and witty and smart,” Murphy says, “whereas Donna Johnna is frustrated, sadistic, and angry, and trying to be a man.”

      The 1950s Italian film-studio setting has led Murphy and his team down a rabbit hole of creativity, encompassing movie projections, clever film references, and a score that spans everything from cha-chas to Italian ballads and quirky retro jazz. The costumes, by Christine Reimer, are as luscious as you might expect, with many of the women’s dresses as drop-dead gorgeous as Sophia Loren at her most perfetta.

      “Everyone’s smoking and wearing sunglasses the whole play,” Murphy says with a laugh.

      But as much as the director has had to play around with the script to make it fit his Hollywood-on-the-Tiber setting, he’s too much of a fan of Shakespeare’s work to mess with it too much.

      “I don’t mind monkeying a bit, but with this play—I think it’s his greatest comedy,” Murphy says. “It’s a comedy that has meaning and depth, it has two of his greatest characters—Benedick and Beatrice—that he created from scratch. They were two of the rare characters that weren’t stolen from other sources, so I think he put a bit of extra love and complexity into them.

      “So I’ve only changed as little as possible to make the concept work, and also so that people can just go, ‘Oh. Okay. I get it.’…So the first scene, it’s really just trying to cleverly sub out words and make the dialogue work, and then it becomes less and less until the end, where there are no changes at all. And there are no structural changes at all.”

      So, with that playfully adapted script and his actors in place, and Bard’s creative team ready to roll out a retro-cinematic world of black-and-white design, there’s only one thing left for Murphy to do: pull out the megaphone and shout “Action!”

      Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Bard on the Beach BMO Mainstage at Vanier Park from Thursday (June 1) to September 23.