Stuck. Stuck and ashamed. I can’t think of anything to say about Much Ado About Nothing. I have no hook to tie together a short essay, no vaguely relevant memoir of my personal life, no obscure theatrical figure to research. The play is one of Shakespeare most nearly perfect compositions. The deft interweaving of serious and comic elements that made Henry IV Part One such a richly rewarding entertainment is duplicated with equal success in this Elizabethan romantic comedy. Beatrice and Benedick, sparring acquaintances turned lovers, are not only very funny, but are realistic human beings with carefully drawn personalities. The Argo recording casts John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft in the lead roles. Both were already acting legends who were recreating celebrated stage performances. This is Gielgud’s only recording for the series, and he seems to have brought extra budget with him – all the featured roles in the play are cast with professional actors, there are extra musical cues and the songs are sung by none other than the great tenor Peter Pears. I’ve gone through a lot of versions of the play, and the Argo recording is full of bests – best Benedick and Beatrice, best Claudio (Gary Watson, who manages to be accessible and sympathetic even in the depths of his jealousy), best Don Pedro (William Squire, polished and aristocratic, giving the gentlest nod to the character’s more callow nature without letting it take over). Dogberry is one of Shakespeare’s more difficult clowns – his malaprops have not retained their comic value, are indeed not particularly believable, and the whole character is developed with a heavy-handedness that seems impossible to salvage. In Kenneth Branagh’s film of Much Ado, the role completely defeats actor Michael Keaton, who leers and mumbles his way through a part that would have fit the jauntily dim self-absorption of Beetlejuice with interesting results. Here, Peter Woodthorpe is more successful, and the titanic depths of his outrage at being called an ass are a wonder to behold.

But above all, this is a star turn for Gielgud, who finds exactly the right touch for every line, knows how to hit each joke without overdoing it, and his more serious incarnation after the supposed death of Beatrice’s cousin Hero never steps outside of the characterization he has already developed. Peggy Ashcroft, likewise, really shines in Act IV, and she fires off “Kill Claudio” with thrilling intensity. And the two have terrific chemistry – indeed, the whole ensemble has been directed by George Rylands with great sensitivity and precise, almost musical, pacing.

So, yeah, I got nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing, with John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, William Squire, Michael Hordern, Gary Watson, Peter Woodthorpe.

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