"Much Ado" is very much about something: adult love, the collapse of the ego in the face of moral responsibility, justice and culpability, the various ways the sexes abuse each other. And even though it is summer and alfresco and the amphitheater crowd is a lot more democratic than the usual stage audience (thanks to Shakespeare Festival's admission policy of a donated can of food), the serious side of "Much Ado" is center stage in Kevin Kelley's production. In fact, it's a surprise to hear how the emotions get whipped up in the second half (when the plot turns dark) and how Kelley's actors get the juices flowing. That is because the first half (when the plot is mostly harmless wordplay and romance) isn't the tonic it should be, with almost every comic moment blunted. The result is rewarding yet strange: a "Much Ado" more at home with drama than comedy. It's hard to believe that this is what Kelley intends, since "Much Ado" contains some of Shakespeare's most brilliant (and sexual) rhyming and punning, and, though danger lurks behind every love tryst in the form of the bitter, evil Don John (Paul Perri), love and wit do triumph. They even ensnare those cynics and burned-out veterans of courtship, Benedick and Beatrice (Steven Grives and Gwynyth Walsh). Perhaps with more performances (the sold-out run at the 1,200-seat theater has been extended to include a Thursday night show before it moves downtown), the kinks could be worked out. They include a nasty body-miking problem: Whole lines were lost during Friday's preview performance because of static, with voices going loud, then soft, depending on which way heads were facing. What fades in and out even more, though, is the sense of place.
The program notes take great pains to explain Kelley's updated setting, from the original Sicily to Jekyll Island, and how it was early 20th-Century America's playground of the rich. It might be a place that the wealthy Leonato (D. Paul Thomas) could lord over. But since Kelley has also updated it to 1932, what are these naval soldiers doing disembarking at this Gatsby-esque resort? And why does Grives' Benedick speak with a British accent? And why do people address the men as signior? And why does Leonato live in a tiny, box-like house (designed by Fred M. Duer), tucked into the middle of a gazebo arrangement? It's as if someone once had a map of this world, then lost it. Part-American, part-Italian, part-British, Kelley's production at first feels like one of those dreaded European movies co-produced by half the Continent. Even Jonathan Sacks' original music comes unglued, unable to blend American jazz with Elizabethan form. Walsh settles things down somewhat as Beatrice, tossing off bright verbal daggers at any man who dares parry with her.
This is a very mature Beatrice, the wheels always spinning, a smirk at the corner of her lips for a world she is trapped in with idiots. Grives, on the other hand, seems unlikely as a boastful bachelor. He may be surpassingly handsome, but he looks uncomfortable in anything but a uniform. He's neither a eunuch nor a playboy, but Grives hasn't found what Benedick is exactly. Still, he nicely indicates how Benedick's spite for old nemesis Beatrice is too forced for anyone to believe. Only one player in the languid love games does the comedy justice: Geoffrey Lower's Claudio, smitten by Leonato's daughter, Hero (Deirdre Imershein), and always in need of a little help to get through the courtship.
What is amazing about "Much Ado" is how it transforms itself from the comedy of predicament to a drama of morality. John has fooled Claudio into believing that Hero saw another man on the night before her wedding, and thus rebuking her at the altar. Beatrice, enraged at Claudio for his abuse of Hero, demands Benedick duel Claudio. The question is then tossed at us: Would we challenge a friend if the person we loved demanded it as an act of faith? Something magical happens. Actors previously reading the language but not playing it, come alive with a sense of commitment. Kelley's cast becomes completely riveting as the stakes increase. In the middle of all this, Lance Davis' Dogberry, the tongue-tied island constable becomes a startling comic figure. Davis bends and toys with every line, teetering like a figure drawn by a drunken artist. There's nothing tougher to pull off in Shakespeare than mood swings, but when things get tough, Kelley's production gets going. Shakespeare Festival/LA's shows used to be nothing more than cute versions of the comedies for the summer crowd. Now, it's sending the crowd home to think about something.
At 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., on Thursday through Friday, 7:30, and at Citicorp Plaza, Seventh Market Place, downtown, on July 18-21 and 25-28, 6:45 p.m., until July 28. Admission: donations of canned food to benefit the needy; (213) 489-1121.
GRAPHIC: Photo, Gwynyth Walsh's wheels-a-spinning Beatrice maneuvers with Walter Francis Kelly, left, and D. Paul Thomas in "Much Ado About Nothing." MIKE MEADOWS / Los Angeles Times
The New York Times, October 2, 1987
Copyright 1987 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
October 2, 1987, Friday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section C; Page 13, Column 1; Weekend Desk
LENGTH: 553 words
HEADLINE: Film: Rupert Everett in 'The Right Hand Man'
BYLINE: By WALTER GOODMAN
THE special thing about Harry Ironminster, the hero of ''The Right Hand Man,'' is that he suffers from diabetes. It's 1860, when languishing figures of fiction usually expired from weak lungs, but this is Australia. Harry has other troubles. His main passion, along with the doctor's daughter, is his horses, and even before the credits roll, he loses control of a spirited matched pair; his father, Lord Ironminster, is killed, and Harry, who proves to be amputation prone, loses his right arm. In need of somebody to exercise the horses and the doctor's daughter, he hires Ned Devine, the driver of a 12-horse stagecoach that comes crashing through the movie from time to time. What happens then can be learned at the Carnegie Hall Cinema. These upper-class Aussies talk this way: ''Why do I not recover?'' ''Is it to do with his wasting disease?'' ''My sleeve is empty, but my hand, it reaches out and touches you.'' ''This marriage would not have been perfect as a marriage between us should have been.'' ''It seems, Harry, we have reached an impasse.'' ''These visits must cease.'' Just as you're getting used to their mouthfuls, the young lord tells his new coachman, ''I'd like to finalize our arrangement.'' Was 19th-century Australia as decadent as that? Why, you may ask, doesn't rich young Harry go off to London where, as the doctor's scientifically minded daughter informs him, a researcher is having some success in helping diabetics? He's just too tired to think about it. And he'd hate to be parted from his horses. The cast does earnest combat with Helen Hodgman's romance-magazine script. Rupert Everett makes a weary and rather wearying hero, but then he is supposed to be wasting away. Catherine McClements, as the doctor's daughter, is a lively new presence from Australia who may be given less foolish things to do in her next movie. Jennifer Claire plays Lady Ironminster as though she were trying out for ''Dynasty''; still, what is to be done with a character who dines at a baronial table and spends the whole movie worrying about ''the death of the Ironminster name''? The burden of being toughly, softly romantic as the right-hand man is too heavy for Hugo Weaving. Di Drew, the director, also seems to be fighting the story. With the help of Peter James's camera, he gives us a rough-and-tumble Australian town, scrubby outdoors, smoky indoors. (The flow of blood during the amputations may be a wee excessive.) But the efforts at realism keep dissolving into chuckles. The ending is a howl. It could be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
Among English-speaking countries all but the Australians would have a hard time getting away with such a richly Victorian romance as "The Right Hand Man" (selected theaters) and not have it seem merely old-fashioned. That's because the Australian cinema is young enough not to have that many precedents in the genre, and therefore it's still possible for such a film to seem fresh. It doesn't hurt, of course, that "The Right Hand Man" has marvelous performances and is a flawless period piece in which each frame seems like a highly detailed old painting come alive. You can feel the oppressiveness of gloomy, heavily Gothic interiors but also the exhilaration of the hunt and all but taste the dust stirred by a great, rumbling stagecoach. Never more Byronic, Rupert Everett is Harry Ironminster, sickly son of a proud, dominating mother (Jennifer Claire) who longs for an heir even more than she yearns for her native England. She has lost her husband in a racing accident that has cost Harry his arm. Harry is able to charm the rugged Ned Devine (Hugo Weaving), driver of the immense (75-passenger) coach Leviathan, into becoming quite literally his "right-hand man," so that he can return to racing. But because it's 1862 there's nothing much to be done for Harry's diabetes, despite all the efforts of the brilliant, up-to-date local doctor (Arthur Dignam) and his beautiful auburn-haired daughter (Catherine McClements), who's as eager to follow in her father's footsteps as not to fall in love with Harry for fear it could detract her from her goal. Everett plays the doomed, delicately handsome aristocrat to the full, and everyone else is also a type familiar in Victorian novels.
Thanks to a lean, intelligent script by Helen Hodgman developed by co-producer Steven Grives from Kathleen Peyton's novel, neither Everett's gallant Harry nor anyone else seems one-dimensional. Peyton is a contemporary writer, but her romantic spirit is closer to the Brontes than to Barbara Cartland. Peyton's people are very much of their time and place, but they possess an honesty and reflectiveness and an individuality of intellect that gives them an immediacy that makes them involving. Authentic Victorian behavior and formalities of speech may draw smiles, but it's always possible to take everyone seriously. Director Di Drew brings to "The Right Hand Man" the kind of passion and vitality that Gillian Armstong brought to "My Brilliant Career." Everett, so memorable in "Another Country" and "Dance with a Stranger," and character actress Claire have roles of such substance that they usually come only rarely in the course of an acting career. What's wonderful about Everett's Harry is that he is poetic without wallowing in self-pity. What's equally impressive about Claire's grande dame is that she's neither stupid nor a hypocrite; her snobbish dynastic passion is wedded to a genuine love of land -- and her son. There's a terrific moment when her seedy, unshaven butler -- most able-bodied men are off to a gold rush -- crudely reminds her to start the dinner meal by giving her shoulder a shove, a gesture she responds to while ignoring its impropriety; it's moments such as these that makes the film so distinctive. Weaving, McClements (in her film debut) and Dignam have less showy roles but are no less effective. McClements' Sarah is endearing in her doughty determination to be a modern woman. "The Right Hand Man" (MPAA rated R for considerable nudity and adult themes) is more than a period romance; it's a commentary on the way people in any age manage to defy convention only to preserve it. 'THE RIGHT HAND MAN'/