Shakey On Celluloid

The Arts


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.

13 comments on “Shakey On Celluloid”

  1. Alan Morgan says:

    Twelfth Night for me.

    And Jon Finch isn’t entirely underated. He was Jerry Cornelius! Also in Breaking Glass of course, a film of importance to women now of a certain age. My missus for one who was a punky teenager when it came out. So much so she’s excited about going to a festival up here where Hazel O’Conner is on the bill. Back in the late eighties/early nineties a lot of the girls I knew would nod and agree on Breaking Glass.

  2. admin says:

    I worked on Breaking Glass – I have a very funny picture of me and Misery guts O’Connor knocking around somewhere – I’ll see if I can find it.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Now, I see why so many men enjoy a game of chest.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    (Couldn’t resist, eh Dan?) The best part of Branagh’s Henry V was the Dona Nobis Pacem at the end. It made me want to weep. His Much Ado About Nothing was just an incredible amount of fun, so much so that you hardly heard the dialogue at all until the men were home. That was the sexiest Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. The problem with moving the settings very far in time is that the dialogue is out of sync with the costumes, although a version at our Playhouse (a venue now closed)that put Hamlet in Edwardian dress and Polonius in the War Room with a map showing how close the enemy’s armies were getting seemed to work. Perhaps that play works in any setting where war is just over the doorstep and absolute power is operative. Good luck, Chris.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    I would plead yet another typo error of mine, since I make a fair number, but that would seem like a cop-out. However, although I have not seen the film from which the still is taken, I beleive that the couple is playing strip-chess and the young female is deruffing bit by bit to drag out the event. The young women in the background appear to be former players who’ve lost and have now taken up an alternative table game, namely pool or billards. Am I correct Admin?

  6. Helen Martin says:

    The young lady is merely lounging sideways to the table. I don’t believe there is any of her ruff missing, Dan.

  7. Gretta says:

    Sorry to get off the subject of ruffs(‘I think he looks like a bird who’s swallowed a plate, My Lord!’) and chests, but in the international Shakey thing that’s being held at the Globe sometime soon, the opening performance is Troilus and Cressida in Maori. It was recently on at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts to much praise. Several critics nominated it as their Festival highlight.

    I think the only celluloid Shakey I’ve seen is Mel Gibson’s Hamlet(better than I thought it would be), and Romeo+Juliet. Sorry to disagree, admin, but I found it ghastly. Possibly this was due to a profound dislike of everything Leonardo di Caprio has done since Gilbert Grape, but to me the only person who had any resonance with what they were saying was the wonderful, and much missed, Pete Postlethwaite. Even Miriam Margolyes looked as though she was ‘phoning it in’.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Troilus & Cressida in Maori would be fascinating. Did they make any changes to the text (other than translation) and what were the costumes?

  9. Gretta says:

    Helen – I honestly have no idea, since I’ve not seen it, but if the pictures at the following(and extremely new) site are anything to go by, it’s been transfered to a traditional Maori setting.

    http://themaoritroilusandcressida.com/

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    Gretta: Thanks for the Maori Shakespeare website. I am sending it to my brother on the professional staff of the Field Museum in Chicago. If he doesn’t already know of this, he will be quite interested. He is a specialist in Melanesia and the Maori and has long studied and collaborated with the Maori people. He visits N.Z. every few years to continue work there.(He had them build and consecrate a traditional Maori house in the Field museum and has brought their representatives to Chicago several times.) He also loves a pint in a N. Z. pub or so.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    London will just go wild over this. I hope the government is providing some funding for them as well as them begging for donations.

  12. Gretta says:

    Dan – that’s awesome about your brother and the Chicago museum. I remember watching a documentary about that installation on Maori TV a few years back.

    Helen – Unfortunately, this is a National/Tory/Right Wing Gvt who cares not one jot for the arts(though, curiously, is perfectly happy to toss $millions at rugby without question).

  13. Helen Martin says:

    The All Blacks are sacred, Gretta. We’ve just had a major theatre company shut down in mid season. The arts have a hard road everywhere just now. So I have to donate in order for the Maori theatre company to go to London during the Olympics to encourage interest in New Zealand in the people of the world. You know that this performance is going to be covered on every nation’s human interest coverage of the Olympics, so why can’t Tourism New Zealand at the very least see the advantages?

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