Gil and Randall write:
OK, we're talking, worrying really, about Stu. He has to direct this play in a couple months. And precious little of our academic discussion is going to help him out. We see a few … issues. Here's the first:
What do you do with Don John? Current audiences lust for motivation, but Shakespeare doesn't give him much. This leaves directors to manufacture or highlight the raison d'etre of many of Shakespeare's villainous characters. Randall recently saw a production of Richard III, in which director Timothy Jopek had Anthony Sarnicki, as Richard, play the character as a straight Vice, a stock character from pre-Shakespearean morality plays. He came out delivering the "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech gleefully, plotting murder, speaking directly to the audience, and darting his tongue lasciviously in and out of his mouth, sort of like a Medieval Gene Simmons. The Vice character needs no motivation; he just is bad, but it was weird to see Richard played that way after seeing three previous Richards on stage (and others in a variety of films) who were constructed with clear motivations ― ambition, malcontentedness, deformity, or even pique. Gil saw an Othello at Ashland this summer, a very straight-forward interpretation, yet Iago almost pouted in soliloquy about how bad he felt that he was passed over for promotion by the arrogant Othello: Iago as wronged and vengeful employee.
Lately, it seems like a lot of directors are playing the sexuality card with the Machiavel or malcontent characters. Certainly McKellan's Richard in Loncraine's film has a hint of the homosexual. Peter Hall's 2005 production of Much Ado in Bath cast Charles Edwards as Don Pedro, a melancholy malcontent, who has "a homosexual fixation with Claudio, which explains why he is so keen to see his wedding ruptured" (Billington, The Guardian). Reviewer Peter Taylor added, of the Hall production, that "Hall makes [Don Pedro] out as lonely a figure at the end as Antonio in Merchant of Venice" (The Independent), which reminds us that Trevor Nunn cast David Bamber as a homosexual Antonio in the Merchant of Venice that starred Henry Goodman, providing an extra explanation for his willingness to help Bassanio and his "melancholy."
So, what to do with John in White Bear Lake (where Stu's company, Shakespeare and Company, performs)? What's his motivation? Does he need any? The risk of offering none is to leave him glowering at the edge of the stage, as did Keanu Reeves in Branagh's Much Ado, completely out of synch with the rest of the cast. But imagine a subtle gay turn to his carriage, silently devoted to his brother Pedro's favored lieutenant, Claudio. Stanley Wells, in Looking for Sex in Shakespeare, writes "Don John, in Much Ado About Nothing, ... is villainous, an outsider. He appears to resent the 'most exquisite' Claudio's impending marriage to Hero, speaks dismissively of her as 'A very forward March chick' (1.3.46, 52), and plots successfully to deceive Claudio into repudiating her at the altar. The text offers no clear explanation; more than one actor has contrived to suggest that he is motivated by repressed desire for Claudio" (83). At this point the sheer malice of destroying the bepedestaled Hero's reputation would be a practical manifestation of jealousy.
Before you offer motivation, though, you need to work around John's lines in Act I, scene 3: "I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad." And "I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any." And "I am a plain dealing villain." Yes, you may be, but why? Is it enough to rely on "Shakespeare's own habitual tough-mindedness," as Jonathan Bate puts it, "which … always recognizes that some human temperaments will never be pleased, or will take pleasure in being displeased"? (The Genius of Shakespeare 142).
Maybe this is an opportunity for one of those marvelous little dumb shows that we sometimes find at the beginnings of plays, perhaps depicting the young Pedro stealing a young John's girlfriend? Or is Don John a usurping malcontent, and we watch him plot an ambush, fail, suffer humiliation (at the hands of Claudio? in reconciliation?), before the triumphant Pedro rides into Messina?
Gilbert and Randall
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