“speak like an ancient and most quiet watchman”: Much Ado About Nothing in the Summer of Love

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By Kelsey Ridge, University of Birmingham

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This year, the Globe theatre flourishes its Summer of Love with Matthew Dunster’s Much Ado About Nothing set in 1914 Mexico during the first wave of Mexican revolution.  It’s an overall lively and engaging production which they bill as “a fusion of Latin music, desert flowers and revolutionary politics.”  Despite the insertion of certain Spanish phrasings, like using“señorita” in place of “lady” and “Chihuahuan” over “Florentine,” this production honored their Shakespearean material instead of twisting it out of shape to create its performance.  They manage to balance their new setting and their script to create a fun show that also provokes interesting thought about the play and modern politics.  Indeed, watching Dunster’s production, for the first time I genuinely wished I were watching a Shakespeare play in a language other than English, because I felt their amusing Dogberry scenes would have sparked just that much more in subtitled Spanish-language production.

In Dunster’s production, Ewan Wardrop’s Dogberry (styled as Dog Berry) and his Watch become a white American director and his film crew, apparently in a nod to Pancho Villa’s agreement with the American Mutual Film Corporation wherein they got footage of a revolution in progress and he got 20% of the profits.  Dogberry’s continuing malapropisms are restyled as the pernicious failings of an Anglophonic American to converse in Spanish.  Verges (played by Sarah Seggari), who at one point carries a large Spanish dictionary, pops up to correct Dogberry’s linguistic failures. As a white American with limited Spanish-speaking capacities, I can assure you that joke is current, funny, and deserved.

Dunster has also added to the text sporadic remarks about Americans, usually derogatory.  Textual comments that reflect early modern anti-Semitism (“if I do not love her, I am a Jew”) and anti-blackness (“I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope”) are reframed to comment on Americans.  When Claudio (played by Marcello Cruz) remarks that he would marry the replacement Hero, even if she were an American, the men around him spit to demonstrate their distaste for the idea of marrying an American.  Such textual emendations and gestures reflect an anti-American sentiment present in parts of the Mexican revolution.  They were also, though, admitted nods at the complicated nature of Mexican-US relations in light of Donald Trump’s own pejorative comments about Mexicans.  Dunster remarks in his program note that watching the US election unfold sparked in him a desire to learn more about Mexico, though it was not the origin of the show’s concept or its setting.  However, it was not the modern American politics that made this Dogberry a standout interpretation of the character to me.

It was the history of the character. In 1976, John Barton presented a ‘British Raj’ style Much Ado for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  This production was known for many things, including a Dogberry and Watch “played as an Indian Dad’s Army, completely with funny ‘babu’ accents and Indian body-language ill-adapted to the conventions of the British Army” in the words of Penny Gay.  Gay said she found that portrayal both “clever” and “totally offensive – racist and patronising, even though I did find myself smiling at the comic performance of John Woodvine’s Dogberry.”  The review of that production that I always remember for that part was Benedict Nightingale’s in New Statesmen in 1976: “I’m not sure that [Dogberry’s] earnest malapropisms were much appreciated by the lady in a sari sitting near me.”  As funny as that bit  may have been for Anglo-Saxon members of the Stratford audience, the English audience or even the Shakespeare audience is not as homogenous as it may once have been.  Turning Dogberry from a native English speaker who bequeaths all his tediousness on other English speakers into an English second-language individual who is the butt of the joke for trying his best is punching-down in an inescapable way.  It seems even harsher considering the relationship of Shakespeare to British colonization of India.  In Thomas Bagington Macauley’s Minute on Education in India, Babington stated that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,” and that was the opinion of a man who believed that education must be done in English, because English was the superior language and used by the ruling classes, and that the purpose of education in English was to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”  Plays, when placed in a new context, absorb the qualities and politics of these contexts.  The power dynamic remains inescapable.

The Dogberry and crew created by Dunster and Wardrop reverses that power dynamic.  Quite frankly, while some Americans in the audience may not have appreciated the jokes, or the refracted version of America’s national anthem (one commenter on the Globe website actually remarked that considering Sam Wanamaker’s Americanness that maybe the Globe should be more polite about the States), it is undeniable that in light of American hegemony the jokes are punching-up, whether or not you think they land.  The joke rests on a reasonable premise.  To this day, while America has the second-largest population of Spanish-speakers in the world (second only to Mexico), their total is less than one in six Americans.  While there are some quibbles about how bilingualism is assessed in survey-gathering, the vast majority of Americans are considered monolingual.  The concept of the Dog Berry joke, at least, is sound.

Of course, to acknowledge the context of the production, it is a British production, not a Mexican production, and it does not use an entirely Mexican (or even entirely Latino) cast.  Jokes about monolingualism may then punch laterally instead of up, since 61% of Brits are monolingual. One may wonder whether the real effect of this scene is not to speak to an international audience and international issues but to amuse Brits who feel superior to Americans, especially those who supported Trump (or maybe superior to those who supported May and Brexit).  Still, there remains something psychically satisfying in seeing a Mexican character “get his” back after the very public anti-Mexican sentiments espoused by Donald Trump and his supporters, and Dunster’s production provides a popular culture frame in which this can happen.

Dog Berry and his company became shining, memorable, and thought-provoking moments in this sparkling Much Ado About Nothing. It deserves to be seen, remembered, and discussed.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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Author:Kelsey Ridge

Kelsey Ridge is currently working towards her Ph.D. at the Shakespeare Institute. She received her M.A. in English (Shakespeare in History) at University College London and her B.A. at Wellesley College, where she studied English and East Asian Studies. Her research interests include feminist theory, the War on Terror, and Shakespeare.

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