A war – we hear the distant drums right at the beginning – is over and the victors come to the conquered as friends – the friends they were before the war started. So it is of no surprise that Claudio soon finds love for Hero (Tyrone Savage, Bethany Jillard) who in turn when Don Pedro woos in lieu of Claudio is only too happy to marry him. And while their wedding is planned, Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Deborah Hay) finds a different kind of emotion: spite – for Claudio’s best friend and best man to be Benedick (Ben Carlson). An emotion Benedick only too happily shares with her. The two – who’d make a lovely couple – hate each other, it seems, and cannot stand to be in the same room for more than a few winks.
Therefore and with Don Pedro’s planning, Hero and Claudio find the time between kissing and planning a future to think of a prank, a way how to get these two into the wedding spirit. Hero tells her maids how fabulously in love Benedick is with Beatrice and only too shy to confide in her – as she is always so ill tempered and harsh towards him. And all the while the girls know that Beatrice is eavesdropping behind the stairs, trying desperately to hear each and every word her friends utter.
The same goes for Claudio – he is discussing Beatrice’s love for Benedick with their generous general, while Benedick squeezes himself into the tiniest nooks to hear everything. Never in his life had Benedick thought that Beatrice’s sharp tongue covered deep feelings for him – he definitely must approach her much more friendly in the future.
So while the two couples are thoroughly and very happily distracted by their feelings, and their host Leonardo is happily arranging family ties with the victors, one is not so happy. Don Pedro’s brother John, obviously the loser in this past war, cannot stand to see the happy faces of his victors. With the help of maid Margaret (Claire Lautier) he slanders Hero’s impeccable reputation by bragging that he had slept with her the night before her wedding – and he does so at her wedding. Claudio believes the vile story and calls off the wedding, when Hero is not able to defend herself properly. He storms off and Hero, shamed to death by the wrongful accusations, collapses into a catatonic state.
Beatrice, already considering Benedick her future husband, wants him to kill Claudio as she is convinced that Hero is not guilty – even more so as Don John is nowhere to be found when they try to clear up his story. And the immediate family declares Hero dead and brings her to the family tomb – a suggestion of the household’s priest who this way wants to prove that Claudio still loves Hero.
Claudio indeed is devastated by the news that his love has died because he believed in lies – as lies it is: a group of – let’s call them thieves has aggravated the magistrates and has been brought to Don Pedro to be convicted. But they confess to hearing Don John talking to his servant that he is going to slander Hero’s reputation to put an end to this bond with his enemy. Claudio offers his life, but Leonardo orders him to marry his “niece”, who looks an awful lot like Hero herself. But – it’s a new Hero for a new life – and finally the two lovers are reunited and able to start a life where trust hopefully is established more convincingly.
Benedick and Beatrice have also found their true feelings – they do love each other after all, and now that Benedick is no longer obligated to kill Claudio in a duel, their wedding is on too. Don John, it is reported, has escaped to another country and won’t bother them any longer. The only one still alone after all these twists and turns is the General, Don Pedro, to whom Benedick finally wisely cracks: Get thee a wife, Don Pedro, get thee a wife.
I admit, it’s not my most favorite Shakespearean play – too many of the concepts are out of time now. But it wasn’t just about Shakespeare in this one: for me Benedick and Beatrice stole the show – married in real life, Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay had the bickering, the sharp repartees down perfectly – but the loving gestures, the glances, and finally the all encompassing kiss too. It is always a joy to see Shakespeare come to life through great actors who revel in the chance of just having FUN – in capital letters – on stage. Therefore both Hay and Carlson dipped into slapstick as they were trying to listen into their friends’ conversations. There was a lot of brilliant physical comedy when Hay actually slipped down a couple of steps on the beautiful staircase and Carlson almost broke a piece of furniture in his attempt to hide. The contrast to their intense scene where Beatrice orders Benedick to exact revenge on Hero’s behalf was all the more stark and equally convincing. I loved the way they played off each other.
And even though I do realise that it’s highly unlikely for them to be on the same stage next year, I want to see these two in next year’s playbill – please!