Ah, the romantic comedy: A genre when presented as an evening’s viewing option has sent many an otherwise lovey-dovey couple to opposite ends of the couch. I have to say the romantic comedy has never been my first stop when Netflix surfing. Actually, it’s rarely my choice at all, unless When Harry Met Sally is on (the last great romantic comedy, IMO) or the least appreciated but my personal favorite of the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks vehicles: Joe vs. the Volcano. [The guy falls for different versions of the SAME woman; how much more romantic (and comedic) can you get?]
William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about romantic comedies. In fact, he invented the genre! The formula of boy meets girl, they run up against some obstacles, surmount said obstacles with the help of a jocular coterie of friends, and live happily ever after: That’s Shakespeare! And perhaps the most seminal of his romantic comedies is Much Ado About Nothing. The plot and characters gave rise to many adaptations and permutations. There was the beautifully hilarious big-screen adaptation in 1993 with real-life couple-at-the-time Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. More recently, in 2012, there was another lovely big-screen adaptation, this time by Joss Whedon, set in modern times but true to Shakespearean language. And between those two, in 2005, our very own Damian Lewis starred as Benedick in a BBC adaptation of the story, set in modern times with modern language, for their series Shakespeare ReTold.
In short, Much Ado is a story of two couples. One is young, pretty and sort of ordinary. Hero and Claudio fall in love in a conventional way and are foiled by a conventional bad guy, Don John. The other couple is the real story. Beatrice and Benedick are somewhat older, weathered and worn, both coming to love reluctantly and meeting much strife, mostly self-created, along the way. They have no enemy besides their own stodgy pride and incapacity to say what they mean. It’s a story of a couple who rails against love, but ultimately can’t resist it. I’m not a professional Shakespearean by any means but I’d venture to guess that the entire trope of a couple who hates as much as loves, fights far more than comes together, was first “invented” by this play. And the idea that only the young can afford to dive headlong into love, while those more experienced must approach with all defenses up? This theme too was written to show on stage for the first time by Shakespeare. Sure, there may have been Beatrices and Benedicks for time immemorial, but it took Shakespeare to write it all down and for us to immortalize it by reading, playing it out, talking about it, and reinventing it forever and ever. Being a decidedly non-romantic reader and watcher, Much Ado About Nothing is a story that I’ll always love seeing played out over and over again.
Before I get into a scene-by-scene of Damian as Benedick let me insert this fun fact. Damian played the foil, the really reprehensible bad guy, Don John, on stage for Royal Shakespeare Company when he was a young lad in 1998. The character has been described as Shakespeare’s most passive villian, because all he does is love, and is punished for what he does when he’s rejected. A role so perfect for Damian: the conflicted villian, the bad guy who gets you to feel for him.
Now, for the 2005 version, Damian played Benedick, a romantic lead, sure, but more significantly, an arrogant goofball, overly content but still adorably unsettled by the abrasive and stridently brilliant Beatrice, played by Sarah Parish. In the original play, it’s Benedick who has all the wit, often at the expense of his friends. But here, Beatrice holds the cards of wit. She snarks all over the place, to friend and foe. She’s a quintessential “bitter hag”, but justifiably so, because, you see, Benedick broke up with her over text, stood her up at a beautiful hotel over a beautiful dinner.
The action of the show takes place three years after that event. Beatrice has moved on, established herself as a trusted anchorwoman in the local news in Wessex. The setting is so perfect: the banality of local news in a town no one really cares about. Characters looking for headlines in nursing home scandals and fogs that won’t lift. (reminds of local news here in my home town where bear sightings on freeways and a man in a tree are the talk of the day) Beatrice learns that her anchorman has fallen off the wagon and been let go only to be replaced by the rogue Benedick who had spurned her three years ago. She’s sleepless the night she gets the news and turns on the Teli, only to find the dufus who dumped her doing a late night antique show.
Okay, let me insert here: Damian is freakin perfect for comedy. He’s physical, he BELIEVES the role, no matter how off-the-wall cheesy and bizarre. In short, he’s laugh out loud hilarious. I dare you to watch this as a Damian fan and not chuckle at every single antic he pulls. Mind you, I watched this for the first time right after coming off of Homeland, and maybe Band of Brothers, both decidedly serious, WAY serious roles. I had yet to see Life, I think, so I had no idea about Damian’s comic abilities. I recall being floored by the fact that Damian Lewis can, in fact, PRANCE. And believably so. Who knew?
So Beatrice gears herself up to meet this guy again, the one who dumped her, the one she got over so well, or so she thought. She sees him boasting about covering some sexy story about bombings as an imbedded journalist on the frontlines or some such nonsense. Basically bullshitting to win over the newsroom he’s just joined, where no one ever hears stories more sexy than heavy fog on the waterfront. No one is listening and Beatrice’s first words upon seeing him are “No one is listening to you, why are you talking?” Then she says something snarky about his goatie. Next you see, while the team is discussing his return, talking about story ideas, Benedick is stroking his goatie, rethinking his choice of growing it.
The middle aged preening and paunch. The two get ready for the camera. Damian must have gained about ten pounds for this role…sorry, whatever number of kilos, I should say. His paunch, and posture to exaggerate it, is lovely.
He’s already dissed Beatrice by commenting on the fact the antique show he did appealed well to middle aged ladies alone at 4’o clock in the morning. The banter has begun. They cut into each other. They openly insult each other in hurtful ways, but still comic as heck.
Let me introduce the other players here. There’s Hero, the effervescent weather girl, played by Billie Piper. And her suitors, the rejected sad clown, alcoholic director-on-the-outs Don and the young bloke on the rise, Claude.
Hero decides to have a costume party (fancy dress!) and in a mildly comic turn Claude and Benedick have the same costume. In the original play there was much made of the confusing disguises. Or was it Don dressed the same as Claude? Whatever the case, hijinks ensued in the original play. And they did here too. Beatrice speaking to Claude, who she knows to be Benedick (but he doesn’t know that she knows!) lets loose some choice critique on his boorishness, his arrogance, his paunch, basically everything hurtful a woman can ever say about a man, she let’s him have it. Benedick is all: let me get away from this wench. But, alas, that is not to be, and he is confronted by her again, this time undisguised, having to maintain polite conversation.
All of what Shakespeare intended to be said in words, Damian says by expression. It’s really very cool to observe: The work Damian does in getting his face to say all of this, and more. There are muscles at work here that the average person, nay, the average actor, just does not possess.
By some twist of plot, Beatrice (dressed as Elizabeth I) asks Benedick to dance. They dance near the pool and observe Hero and Claude loving on each other and being generally insufferable. They witness Claude getting on his knee and proposing and they are like, what fresh hell is this?
Back in the newsroom, Beatrice proceeds to make Benedick’s life hell. So much so that his head is in danger of exploding.
They share a nice walk on the beach, where they proceed to tear into each other. It’s the banter here, the chemistry, the sexual frustration, you see. Just as Shakespeare intended.
And still Benedick, with Beatrice’s voice in his head, is wondering if his facial hair was a good choice. Something about Damian looking at himself in a mirror…he’s done it in several roles already (Brody & Keane, come to mind). Of course he’s in character, but still. Just boggles the mind how an actor is able to stay in character when looking at himself in the mirror, arguably the most personal, most “identifiable” act known to man. How does he not crack himself up doing this?
While he’s doing this, the coterie of jocular friends is at work. You see, everyone in the newsroom knows that Beatrice loves Benedick and Benedick loves Beatrice. Everyone knows but them! So the friends get together to create meaty conversation for them to eavesdrop on.. First there’s a faux conversation about how much Beatrice has it bad for Benedick, meant for Benedick’s ears.
I chuckle even at this gif. Again, the capacity of Damian Lewis to deliver physical comedy…takes you by surprise. As far as basic old school goofiness was concerned I always leaned towards Laurel and Hardy vs. the Marx Brothers. The Marx Brothers had too many snarky words I never completely understood and the silent brother always creeped me out a bit as a kid. But Laurel and Hardy, OMG, laugh out loud goofiness. Them and the guy from Get Smart always had me LOLing till tears. Damian doing physical comedy hits the same nexus for LOLs.
After eavesdropping on the conversation designed for him to eavesdrop on, Benedick goes home and lays wondering in bed. She loves me? She loves me!
Next they meet, he’s all wink wink nudge nudge. And she’s all, why are you looking at me like that? Like what, he asks? Like this, she imitates. HA!
In addition to the comment about his goatie, he’s also heard Beatrice’s critique of his paunch. He borrows a bicycle pump to inflate his blue ball, and he hides out in his dressing room doing sit ups over it. The blue ball, however, cannot be contained within the cupboard.
Benedick proceeds to make googly eyes over a nonplussed Beatrice who questions whether he’s on crack.
Meanwhile. Hero and Claude have planned their wedding and have invited the entire crew. There are hotel rooms, attached hotel rooms, in store for our reluctant couple. Also, the coterie of jocular friends has played their role in letting Beatrice hear a faux conversation wherein she learns that Benedick is in love with her. So now they both know the other loves them, but neither knows it themselves, if that makes any sense at all…which, in a Shakespearean comedy, of course it does! Also, notice, the goatie is gone.
Their rooms are attached, and they’re both awake watching dumb TV. Benedick knocks on the door and feigns asking for help with his best man’s speech. .He says that while most will be expecting some sort of “laddy humor” he wanted to do something different, recite a Shakepeare sonnet. Despite herself, Beatrice snarks brilliantly “how original”. She knows now that he loves her, so despite what her mind demands of her, her heart wants to be kind, so she listens to him recite Shakepeare’s sonnet 116. He starts the first line and she finishes it for him.
He breathlessly says “You’re so clever.” He’s a goner now, but neither of them know! He proceeds to read.
He looks increasingly uncomfortable standing there while she sits. Damian does a hilarious jutting out of his arm to stabilize himself. Beatrice invites him to sit and she takes over reading.
The sonnet is done, and they part ways for the night. But what’s done is done. The quivers from being so close, on a bed, reciting poetry together: there’s no going back now!
The next morning at Hero and Claude’s wedding, much trauma follows.
Hero is betrayed by Don, who was her lover in the past but whom she let go as kindly as she could. Claude is lead to believe that Hero is still with Don. He harshly humiliates her and dumps her at the alter. Everyone is in tears, particularly Beatrice, remembering having suffered her own loss of love, now seeing her friend Hero suffering it, bringing all her well-managed emotions to the fore. Benedick tries to comfort her. And they finally profess their love for each other. But not before Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claude. She demands it. And Benedick has no option but to act in some way. This is a woman who has inspired him to be a better man and he is willing to do anything to win her back.
Benedick tries to reason with Claude. Everyone learns of Don’s role in all of this. Hero nearly dies from some fisty cuffs that ensue. But she lives and so does everyone else (a happy shift from the original play).
Beatrice finally gets the date in the nice restaurant that she was expecting three years ago.
And then there is another wedding. This time with a different configuration of bride and groom, best man and bridesmaid.
Would I have loved this telling of Much Ado as much if Damian weren’t in it? Probably so, since it is indeed a timelessly great story. But Damian in the story as Benedick was icing. The reluctant romantic hero, the stalwart comic rogue. Yep, icing. Thanks, of course, go to the Bard for providing the vehicles for such greatness.