Beatrice and Benedick begin their “merry war” in this impressive prequel to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
One year before the Bard’s comedy begins, Beatrice first meets Benedick at her uncle Leonato’s court in Sicily, where Benedick is delivering the young count Claudio to the boy’s father. When Beatrice calls Benedick a glorified “nursemaid,” Benedick resolves to prove her wrong. Thus begins a battle of the sexes, complete with Beatrice engaging Benedick in proper Italian combat while dressed as a man. Fiorato (The Venetian Bargain, 2014, etc.) re-creates Shakespeare’s Renaissance as if she's embellishing one of his scripts with copious stage directions and footnotes, from the setting to the props. Staring at his dinner plate one night, Benedick observes, “The Sicilians seemed fond of marrying foods together that should never even have met. I was served a cheese with a lime inside, pasta littered with raisins, and anchovies stirred with oranges.” Much of the conflict, though, is based on professor Martino Iuvara’s (Shakespeare era Italiano, 2002) theory that the mysterious English playwright was, in fact, Sicilian. Tragic moments from Romeo and Juliet and Othello juxtapose Beatrice and Benedick’s comedic mishaps, illuminating issues of racial tension and women’s rights and suggesting that “no one knows if they play in a comedy or a tragedy until the final curtain. The ending is the thing.” It’s worth revisiting the original plays to catch all the references, but the plot stands well on its own as Benedick meets disaster on the Spanish Armada and Beatrice, now stuck in Verona, resists an engagement to a familiar Shakespearean face.
It’s a lively origin story in which all the world’s a stage, but especially Italy, and the suspense is high as the lovers walk a tightrope between truth and trope.