Shakespeare: From Stage To Screen

Burton and Taylor had a ball in The Taming Of The Shrew

I originally planned to publish this on Monday but the deluge of media coverage on Shakespeare’s birthday made me think twice.  The last thing anybody needed was yet another Shakespeare-related article so I decided to hold it back for a few days.

Little space was given on Monday to cinematic versions of his work – and there are plenty of them.  Over 400, if you count TV adaptations.  But they’re not all just translations from the page to the screen: they range from modern dress and different period settings to those using Shakespeare’s plot as the basis for a movie (think Ten Things I Hate About You or West Side Story) or others that take chunks from several plays and mould them into an entirely new story. 

Actors such as Lenny Henry and David Harewood have been working to make Shakespeare more accessible, the theory being that many are put off by the language.  But it’s a language that was written to be understood by Shakespeare’s audience, which means it isn’t a million miles from the constantly evolving English that we speak today.  And, spoken properly, it can be as easy for us to understand as it was for the Elizabethans.  It’s only when it’s done badly that it becomes unfathomable.  Put simply, Shakespeare isn’t scary.

So, if you’re thinking of jumping on the Shakespeare bandwagon for yourself, you could do a lot worse than try some of his outings on the screen.  My selection is by no means definitive, but they are all worth watching for a host of reasons and offer different perspectives on the work of our greatest dramatist.

If you’ve never watched any Shakespeare before, Ralph Fiennes’ contemporary take on Coriolanus (2011) is a good starting point.  Not because it’s one of the easier or best-known plays – it’s neither – but because this modern-day version is a powerful and well-acted piece of cinema that could easily encourage novices to try some more.  And that can’t be a bad thing.

Just as accessible, but more high-spirited despite being extremely un-pc, is Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming Of The Shrew (1967), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  They both attack their roles with relish – Burton in particular – making this a highly entertaining bawdy comedy.

I can’t talk about Shakespearean films without mentioning Sir Laurence Olivier, who was behind four major productions. Henry V (1944) – his first and probably best – was intended as a piece of wartime propaganda and, while it now looks more than a little dated, it contains some memorable scenes that have been regularly imitated – the king’s eve of battle walk among his troops, for one.  An atmospheric Hamlet (1948) filmed in Elsinore Castle was followed by screen versions of two of his biggest stage triumphs, Richard III (1955) and Othello (1965).  Both looked like what they were – adaptations of stage plays – and while Olivier’s live performances must have been mesmerising, they were simply too big for the screen.

A modern day interpretation of Hamlet (2000) set the play among a 20th century business community, The Denmark Corporation.  Ethan Hawke was a suitably brooding prince, but the stand-out performance came from Bill Murray as Polonius, the epitome of “a very nice man, but ……”

The Japanese Macbeth in Throne Of Blood met a suitably gruesome end

Of course, Shakespearean films haven’t been confined to the English language.   Perhaps the best overseas adaptations come from Japan, courtesy of Akira Kurosawa, who brought two of the tragedies to the screen.  Macbeth became Throne Of Blood (1954), with a wonderfully evil oriental Lady MacB, as well as his favourite actor, Toshiro Mifune, in the lead role.  Some thirty years later, the King Lear story was turned into Ran (1985), a sweeping epic with a stunning and legendary silent battle sequence.

Peter Brook brought his Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear to cinemas in 1971 and kept Paul Schofield in the title role.  The bleak, black and white interpretation avoided the pitfall of appearing stage-bound, although its premise that Lear was totally to blame for his downfall didn’t totally hold water – and never could.

Looking For Richard (1996) was Al Pacino’s documentary about his attempt to direct Richard III.  I can never resist anything that examines the acting process – it’s fascinating – so this is right up my street.  We’re taken into the rehearsals and improvisational sessions, as well as hearing Pacino’s thoughts on the relevance of the play today.  He musters an excellent cast, who both play themselves and their Richard III roles – Kevin Spacey is a wonderfully sinister Buckingham – and there are also interviews with big names including James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave and Kenneth Branagh.

Finally – and most unusually – Chimes At Midnight (1965) was the personal project of the great Orson Welles.  It brought together scenes and characters from Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V, all to give Welles the opportunity to play one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters – Falstaff – and to give one of the best performances of his career.

If you’re tempted to give Shakespeare a try, you can find plenty more suggestions on www.imdb.com.  In the meantime, I’ll follow Polonius’s advice in Hamlet – “brevity is the soul of wit” – and leave you to enjoy some Shakespeare on screen!

A podcast version of this article is now available to download at: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Show/audio/5984 

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