"Much Ado About Nothing" has always been a favorite in the Shakespearean canon, but its popularity seems to be running particularly high this season. After its current, critically acclaimed Broadway engagement, the Royal Shakespeare Company will bring the work (in tandem with "Cyrano de Bergerac") to the Kennedy Center on Jan. 23. In the spring, the Folger Theatre will produce its version of the play -- to be set, rumor has it, on an ocean liner. And tonight at 9, television gets into the act with a two-hour production (to be carried on Channel 22 and other Maryland Public TV stations) that launches the seventh and final season of "The Shakespeare Plays."
As it turns out, the television production, coproduced by the BBC and Time/Life Television, is a good place to start -- a handsome, thoughtful and essentially sober interpretation of a comedy that easily lends itself to flashy effects. The general tendency is to play Beatrice and Benedick, those recalcitrant lovers "too wise to woo peaceably," with extravagant panache. Shakespeare, after all, described their courtship as a "merry war" and armed each of them with an arsenal of quips and put-downs. Not only do these headstrong and independent creatures enjoy a good fight, they prefer to do their fighting in public so that others can watch and keep score.
Robert Lindsay and Cherie Lunghi, who play the squabbling pair tonight, don't actually pull any punches. Indeed, by simply arching one of her artfully plucked eyebrows, Lunghi can wreak devastation on her opponent. But they make it deliciously obvious that the war of words is nothing compared to the conflict they are experiencing in their own hearts.
Television permits a kind of reflective intimacy not possible on the stage, and this production, directed by Stuart Burge, is continually venturing behind the masks, sounding out hidden feelings, exploring the vulnerabilities of two erstwhile lovers who feel compelled to strike a pose, despite themselves. Lindsay and Lunghi are both good-looking performers. But it is the rare intelligence they bring to their roles, and the self-doubts they allow themselves when others aren't looking, that make them uncommonly attractive.
Otherwise, this is a fairly straightforward rendering of "Much Ado." The action is set in 17th-century Sicily in cheerfully dappled gardens and golden candle-lit halls, and the costumes have a sumptuousness that suggests wealth and the grace that often goes with it. The entire cast brings a casual conversational flavor to the text, rendering the Elizabethan banter surprisingly accessible. No one is posturing, least of all Don John, the mischief-maker in this Eden. Vernon Dobtcheff is, in fact, a soft-spoken villain of such seeming reasonableness that you can understand how the others might be duped by his lies. Even Dogberry, that comic constable and relentless mangler of the English language, is played by Michael Elphick with a refreshing absence of pomp and circumstance. (Dogberry, Elphick shows us, is merely trying to get a job done as best he can.)
There is, however, one abiding drawback to the play, that sticky subplot involving the dashing Claudio (model-perfect Robert Reynolds) and the beauteous Hero (model-perfect Katharine Levy). Claudio is all set to take her for his bride, until Don John convinces him on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence that Hero is "a rotten orange." Accusations break out at the altar, Hero swoons and the story bogs down with needless confusions that take an act to sort out.
How to make this contrived turn of events seems less than arbitrary -- and Claudio, Don Pedro and Benedick look less than fools for gobbling down Don John's charges -- is the problem, and I'm not sure this production solves it. Hero's spotless reputation is all too effortlessly sullied and the viewer is left with the impression that the whole nasty mess could really have been nipped in the bud with a quick explanation or two.
The evening's real complexities reside in the proud hearts of Beatrice and Benedick, sparring partners whose every jibe betrays the attraction they feel. Watching them go at one another in this production is a delight. Even better are those moments when they find themselves adrift in a sea of puzzlement and confusion, wondering if love hasn't got them in its fearful clutches.
As that realization takes root and grows, "Much Ado" itself expands with joyful insights. By the end, the brittle repartee is fooling no one: it is a bald and endearing admission of surrender.