With my latest novel BEATRICE AND BENEDICK just weeks away from release, I’ve been thinking about my beloved heroine and hero and my relationship with them over the years.
I first met Beatrice and Benedick in 1988, in my high school English class. English Literature had quickly become one of my favourite subjects thanks to what I call my ‘Dead Poets’ teacher. You know the Dead Poets teacher – you all had one. (Or at least, I hope you did.) That teacher who took a subject and made it live for you. That teacher who took dry-as-dust dates or formulae and made them fascinating. That teacher who made learning seem like fun. My ‘Dead Poets’ teacher was Peter Eastman; he took the Shakespeare set texts that we were all dreading, and made them sing. Much Ado About Nothing was the set play for our ‘A’ levels, and in the summer of 1988 the whole class acted out the play (Mr Eastman said that Shakespeare was written to be performed, so he got us all out of our chairs) At the very end of the play, the wedding scene, it was my turn to be Beatrice. There I was with my Sun-in bleached hair and a skirt as short as the uniform code would possibly allow, transported back to 1598, reading the words of the funniest, spunkiest, feistiest heroine I’d yet met in literature. Beatrice was the girl I longed to be, not just in the play but in life – cleverer than all the boys and funny with it. But she was not perfect – she was vulnerable in a very endearing way. And Benedick – he was her perfect foil; the only one who could match her, her celestial ‘other half’. He was always her intended in so many ways – their union written in the stars that danced at Beatrice’s birth.
Most texts that I studied for my ‘A’ levels were closed and abandoned as soon as the invigilator called ‘time’ in the exam room. My copy of ‘Staying On’ by Paul Scott, for example, has stayed untouched on the bookshelf from that day to this. But Beatrice and Benedick crept under my skin, and I actively sought them out. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to claim that the pair are part of the reason that I went on to study history at University, and concentrated on the Renaissance period.
Then, in my final year of University, came the film that truly brought Beatrice and Benedick to life for me. Renaissance man Kenneth Branagh swept his friends off to a matchless Tuscan villa for a summer of filming. He was to play Benedick, and he cast his wife, Emma Thompson, as Beatrice. The result was a charming, sun-drenched romp, the first ever feature film of Much Ado About Nothing. Here, at last, it seemed, were my old friends personified upon the screen. The film was not perfect – there was some odd ‘Hollywood’ casting, some brutal editing and some pretty broad comedy, but overall the film captured something very special – the merry war of wit and the very real chemistry of the two leads.
1993 was the year of Much Ado, it seemed. Following the film, I saw another terrific production that same year with Mark Rylance and Janet McTeer as Beatrice and Benedick. Janet McTeer had long been my favourite actress since I first saw her at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and Mark Rylance was already acclaimed as one of the finest actors of his generation. The pairing of two such accomplished Shakespeareans did not disappoint and the comedy of the poetry was augmented by the difference in size of the two leads – McTeer was a towering greyhound to Rylance’s scrappy terrier.
Forward-wind to 2004 and Tamara Harvey’s daring all-female production at the Globe saw Josie Lawrence starring as Benedick opposite Yolanda Vazquez – Lawrence’s Benedick was an appealing, slightly bumbling, brummie-accented hero; by the end of Act I I’d forgotten she was a woman.
And now, Much Ado seems to be enjoying a revival once again. 2013 saw two startlingly original productions; Meera Syal played Beatrice to the late Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick in the RSC’s riotous Bollywood interpretation, and in a more sedate Old Vic production directed by former Benedick Mark Rylance, veterans Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones played an ageing Beatrice and Benedick who elect, in their twilight years, to recapture the magic of their youthful romance.
As usual, where the stage led Hollywood followed and 2013 also saw a new film version of Much Ado About Nothing – this time from Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon. Whedon gave us a spare, monochrome production, filmed in his Beverly Hills house over one weekend; the modern-day setting, iPhones and American accents bringing the play right up to date.
I hope my forthcoming book BEATRICE AND BENEDICK can take its place upon this timeline of Beatrices and Benedicks, and do justice to the characters I’ve come to love so well. Over the years they have become my friends; friends I don’t see very often; friends whom I can only visit when they appear in a new film or play; but dear friends nonetheless. So dear that when I stopped writing them, I felt positively bereft.
I wonder if Shakespeare felt the same?