Compagnie Hypermobile, Beaucoup de bruit pour rien [Much Ado About Nothing]

The French do not find me funny. Rather than take this as a sign that I am not, in fact, funny, I take it to mean that comedy does not translate easily. Other writers for this blog have observed as much over the course of the Globe to Globe Festival. Though every audience member always experiences a play differently, intercultural comedy heightens the effect. So it was with great excitement and curiosity that I, a Canadian-American working in France, entered the Globe for the first time to experience one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies performed by a French company before a mixed French and British audience.

Compagnie Hypermobile’s boisterous Beaucoup de bruit pour rien [Much Ado About Nothing] had all the bawdy, feisty physicality of a good French farce. Indeed, Beatrice’s first speeches hit the audience like a Eurostar train, only better timed. Her frantic gesticulation may have seemed a bit much to some, but it was in keeping both with the tradition of French farce and with a production determined to send up comedy as well as love. Benedict’s [Benedick’s] physicality undercut his witty barbs; even as he insulted Beatrice and the institution of marriage, he adopted an exaggerated courtship stance – weight on the left foot, right leg extended to present the calf muscle – that appears frequently in stagings of Molière or Corneille. Benedict may not have wanted to want Beatrice, but his right leg was telling us that he wanted her to want him.

The French language, too, proved quite comically effective. One of my favorite moments in the play is Benedick’s attempt to parse the hidden significance of Beatrice’s dinner invitation. In English, Benedick’s line reads, “‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner,’ there’s a double meaning in that.” In this production, the scene played as if Benedict were discovering the full convoluted range of French verb conjugations (and to their credit, the French will always commiserate over their vertiginous verbs). Later, reading each other’s secret love letters, Beatrice and Benedict both let out a throaty, mildly disgusted “oh la la,” sending Francophone and Anglophone alike into uproarious laughter.

But where there’s merry, there’s melancholy. Don Juan [Don John] explained his to Borachio overtop the ringing laughter of the rest of the cast, and his subsequent machinations were more the result of alcohol (neon blue instead of absinthe green) than of malice. Sexually assertive Marguérite [Margaret] also had her moment, however brief, as she set up the chairs for someone else’s wedding. At that same wedding, Claudio shamed Hero by mistaking her for Marguérite. Everyone rushed to defend or condemn Hero, leaving Marguérite alone stage right to ponder her own worth.

Our merry warriors were not immune, but theirs was a melancholy intelligible largely through their costume changes. Beatrice began the play dressed in sharp tweed trousers, waistcoat, and tie, and she regularly carried a pipe. Benedict wore a Spanish matador’s jacket and an eye-searing purple kilt. Once both had (in private) acknowledged their love, Beatrice donned a dress and Benedict put on trousers. Luckily, the costume design undermined its own apparent restoration of gender norms. Beatrice’s dress was quite loose and hid the figure that the tweed trousers had accentuated. As for Benedict, his trousers were cut from the same loud plaid, and his transformation north of the neck – from wild hair and goatee to slick coiffure and neat moustache – made him the spitting image of Marcel Proust, arguably France’s most famous closeted homosexual. This distinctly French sight gag added another layer of comedy to Benedict’s realization of his own desire and his reluctant “coming out.” It also retroactively cast doubt on why, exactly, Benedict would be so invested in preserving his company of bachelors, including the oddly camp Claudio. Beatrice and Benedict were a bit ill at ease in the new roles assigned to them, even if they attempted to play them with their usual gusto.

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy with tragic undertones, and this production gave full expression to both sides in the French languages of farce and melancholy. As I watched a Marcel Proust lookalike attempt to adopt the heroic stances of 17th century courtship, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I opted to cry laughing.

 

David Calder
Doctoral Candidate in Interdisciplinary Theatre and Drama 
Northwestern University