Sex and the theatre: When a man hates a woman

... it usually ends in a kiss. The National's 'Much Ado About Nothing' will bristle with barbed wit. But the battle of the sexes has always made good drama, says Paul Taylor
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Unlike many other Shakespearean comedies, Much Ado about Nothing has not generated a wide range of direct adaptations. The boisterous, bruising battle of wills in The Taming of the Shrew, say, translates to other cultures with an ease that's unavailable to the skirmishes of wit in Much Ado. The latter depend on quickness of verbal dexterity and a social context in which a code of honour (in both its least and its most fortunate aspects) and the macho inclination to polarise women on a Madonna/whore spectrum can be seen to persist and flourish.

But the play's bequest to the world is a precious and fertile one. In inventing Beatrice and Benedick and in allowing them to upstage the official main plot (of female innocence slandered by hastily affronted masculinity and self-regard), Shakespeare created the blueprint for the host of bickering, bantering couples who, throughout subsequent drama and later in film, engage in "a kind of merry war" of words.

What's the emotional drive behind this kind of relentless repartee? Well, such reluctant double-acts are often trying to disguise from themselves and others the fact that they are hopelessly in love. They affect to shrug off the pain of the blows received by brashly advertising the smartness of the blows administered. And they are signalling to one another, in the collaborative – not to say compulsive – verve of these sparring sessions, their essential kinship of spirit. The duelling of these duos may have obvious affinities to a fencing match, but it's also a soul-mating dance. And the wry joke is that no one watching is fooled for a moment by the ostensible purpose of their bouts. A private mutual exploration conducts itself, faute de mieux, before an only partially comprehending public.

There's a good old word, largely obsolete now – "flyting" – that was once used to denote a virtuosic contest of invective and insults. With apologies to Mark Ravenhill, I'm tempted to call this whole sub-genre a case of "Flyting and Fucking". The former leads, by twists and degrees, to the latter. And over this broad (and temporally continuous) imaginative terrain, couples who are first cousins to Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick are strewn. One thinks of the lippy pairs in Restoration comedy (Harriet and Dorimant in The Man of Mode and Mirabell and Millamant in The Way of the World). These partnerships gesture towards the world of Noël Coward where they attenuate to the assertively irresponsible couples, such as Amanda and Elyot in Private Lives, who recognise no rules other than being unstable laws-unto-themselves.

In the eagerly awaited revival of Much Ado at the National, which is directed by Nicholas Hytner and starts previews on 10 December, the sparring mid-lifers are portrayed by the dream team of Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale. One of Wanamaker's previous roles for the National was Hildy Johnson, the savvy female reporter in a stage version of the fast-talking Hollywood classic from 1940, His Girl Friday. This happy coincidence helps draw attention to the close link between Much Ado about Nothing and the screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties.

The parallels lie not just in the rapidity of wise-cracking wit and mutual put-downs or the sense that, despite all the discomforts of being together, life would be too dull for these pairs if they insisted on remaining apart. No, there's also a deeper emotional bond that unites Much Ado and films such as The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth.

Whether involving a Philadelphia socialite whose planned second nuptials to New Money are hijacked by her debonair playboy ex-husband, or a married couple whose impending divorce is staved off with only minutes to spare, these cordially acrimonious double acts are often people who have already put each other through the mill in the bliss-and-bale of wedlock and undergone a divorce. And now they find that they are being drawn back to together. Once bitten, twice shy? Or once bitten, twice smitten?

The mood of these movies could scarcely be called sentimental, but they do hold out the possibility of the Second Chance for the wounded-yet-wiser veterans of the marital battlefield. It's a further enjoyable refinement that these movies manage to be all the more romantic by junking the dewy-eyed glance in favour of the straight look. "For your own sake, Red, you should have stuck to me longer," Cary Grant tells Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story – not forbearing to use his intimate married nickname for her, even on the eve of her scheduled wedding to another man. "I thought it was for life," she snarls back at him, "but the nice judge gave me a full pardon." This sally carries the barbed suggestion that a pardon was necessary because of the bad taste of getting hitched to him in the first place. "They grew up together," her flustered, emollient mother informs the guests caught in the crossfire. While this hints at the snobbish side to The Philadelphia Story (the divorced pair come from the same class and should close ranks against outsiders), it also shows the piece wise to the fact that simply by enduring the heady ordeal of their original marriage, the couple must have done some joint growing-up.

Hytner finds screwball comedy a revealing perspective from which to examine the inaugurative emotional insights that Shakespeare dramatised in Much Ado. Beatrice and Benedick are his addition to the Claudio-Hero "main" plot and he also invented the wonderfully fertile idea that this older couple have crossed paths and swords before – to their mutual injury. "They never call their skirmishes 'a merry war' of words," Hytner points out. "Their behaviour towards one another always springs from an implied past and Shakespeare gives you just enough for speculation." You get the strong impression, lightly though it is adumbrated, that it was Benedick, he argues, who "did the runner" from the previous encounter.

With Much Ado, the artistic chief of the National ends a year he began by directing a revival of Etherege's dark Restoration comedy, The Man of Mode, in the Lyttelton. Talking about Harriet, the sparky young heiress, and the rake Dorimant – who are the later play's nearest equivalent to a couple who recognise a common vitality in their bouts of raillery – it's the differences from, rather than the continuities with, Beatrice and Benedick that Hytner wishes to emphasise. "When your love's grown strong enough to make you bear being laughed at, I'll give you leave to trouble me with it," declares Harriet during one of these exchanges in The Man of Mode. With them, it was attraction at first sight and they don't have a shared past or hinterland. "This pair," says the director, "are ruthless about what they want from each other. Neither has any knowledge of the inner life of the other" – and neither employs barbed banter as a way of exploring anything that cannot be used as a means to an end.

Hytner makes the profound observation that the difference between the Bard and many lesser writers is that "Shakespeare proceeds from the global intuition that everybody is living with a wound." That's why, though we are dazzled by the repartee of Beatrice and Benedick, we are so drawn to them as fellow human beings.

It's telling, Hytner argues, that the relatives of Beatrice and military comrades of Benedick never worry about the loneliness to which the pair are consigning themselves as they start to ossify into the confirmed bachelor and spinster who sings for her supper. But if the eavesdropping prank, whereby friends and family contrive to let the reluctant lovebirds hear some home truths, does not start altruistically, Hytner likes the way the ruse becomes a typical Shakespearean example of something empathetic at work in the nature of things.

And, of course, Beatrice and Benedick demonstrate the virtues that a position of loneliness can imply – the independence of mind that enables them to stand apart from the conventional postures of horror when Hero is wrongly defamed and then cruelly dropped by Claudio at the abortive wedding. All this gives a flush of faintly autumnal gold to the couple's wisdom and makes the high-spiritedness of their displays feel deliciously naughty and morally admirable. Casting Russell Beale and Wanamaker, Hytner has equipped his production with two actors who possess a matchless ability to project how largeness of spirit can overcome the pettiness to which dwelt-on grievance can lead. They are masters of verbal wit and of the mysteries of the injured heart. In them, this tradition looks set to be stirred to a new lease of complex, cussed, contrary and richly comic life.

'Much Ado about Nothing', National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000), 10 December to 29 March