As I’m thinking of embarking on a horrific revision of a Shakespearian play, I settled down to try and watch as many versions of Shakespeare on film as I could manage. Shakey on celluloid turned out to be a long and often exhausting voyage.
Translating Will for the big screen presents a peculiar set of problems; how do you restage plays written for a small theatre on the banks of the Thames so that a film reaches a wider audience? Should you simplify the dialogue? How do you marry the intimate and the epic? How far do you go toward spelling out the avowedly ‘difficult’ language? (Actually much Shakespeare isn’t that difficult when you see it acted out – reading from the page is infinitely harder.) And what do you do with the incongruous funny bits aimed at the groundlings that work in the Globe but not on screen?
The other thing you notice when you watch a lot of celluloid Bard, is that they either work well or completely fail to engage. I haven’t seen Orson Welles’ ‘Othello’, but by all accounts it’s a lot better than the recent dismal Oliver Parker version I suffered through.
Franco Zeffirelli’s chocolate-box ‘Romeo & Juliet’ has not aged well, but at least the lovers, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, are the right age. Better by far is Baz Lurhman’s raucous gangland reinvention. There are two key ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ versions (1935 and 1999), both all-star Hollywood cavalcades, and neither is really much cop, unless you’re prepared to buy musclebound Stanley Tucci as Puck. If ever a play was due a modern makeover, it’s this.
For me, Polanski’s gruesome ‘Macbeth’, even with its cut text, remains the most atmospheric version, and stars the woefully underrated Jon Finch. There’s no truly successful film I’ve seen of Lear, which is odd, and of the TV versions, Ian Holmes is probably the best king. Ian McKellan’s ‘Richard III’, in war-ravaged Britain, is genuinely cinematic, and solves the central dilemma dogging this and Coriolanus – the unlikeable central character – by making them both men shaped by war.
The comedies are hit and miss. With ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ out of fashion since Liz Taylor scratched and spat all over it, we have the excellent rambunctious (and very filmic) ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ from Branagh, a good ‘Twelfth Night’, a bizarre Japanese-themed ‘As You Like It’ from the same director and a lead-footed Cole Porter style version of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ that still has a certain cheesy charm of its own.
Branagh, who clearly feels shadowed by the ghost of Olivier (see ‘My Week With Marilyn’) has remade Olivier’s greatest hits, but his ‘Henry V’ has nowhere near the power of Olivier’s version, partly because the early production is a clear call to arms driven by Britain’s war with Germany.
Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet is an oddity more than anything else – an overlit mash-up of incongruous star names that prevents involvement – ‘Oh look, there’s Jack Lemmon!’ – and presenting Elsinore as a gaudy palace of bright surfaces doesn’t really work as well as Olivier’s version, although Sir Laurence is clearly too old.
Surprisingly, one of the best film adaptations of the Dane is Zeffirelli’s Mel Gibson ‘Hamlet’, with a radically cut text. Here, Hamlet is presented as a man of action, but so unfocussed that he cannot achieve his aims, and it works rather well.
After an excellent ’Titus’ I expected Julie Taymor’s ‘The Tempest’ to be better than it was. The gender-switch of Prospero has worked before – I saw Vanessa Redgrave do it beautifully at the Globe – and Helen Mirren is superb, but the rest is a mess, with the comedy business with Trinculo even more annoying than usual, and an inappropriately arid setting flattening the lovers’ scenes. Most unforgiveable is the removal of the masque at the play’s heart, which shows Prospero’s joy at his/her daughter’s wedding.
For this, see ‘Prospero’s Books’, a heavily altered version from Peter Greenaway not without its flaws, one being the multi-tracked voices meant to show that Prospero controls all – all this does is make the dialogue hard to hear – but a version that restores a sense of wonder to the play.
I still have a few to see – not sure I’m ready for Al Pacino’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ yet – but one thing is clear from my marathon; the directors who are prepared to be less respectful with the text manage to clarify the point of the play a lot better than those who are over-reverential.