Shakin’ All Over

With the Horrible Historians’ Bill already in cinemas, and Justin Kurzel’s grand guignol Macbeth coming this weekend, we asked our contributors to tell us about their own memorable experiences with filmed adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Enter Mr Moth, pursued by a… Moth-eating bear.


Hamlet (d. Franco Zeffirelli) – by Mr Moth

Look, I was no great fan of Shakespeare when I was 16. Who was? I’ll tell you – boffs. I, of course, was a handsome sporting hero who saved Christmas and romanced the cheerleaders, possibly I’m thinking of someone else. It doesn’t matter. The fact is, Shakespeare is a pile of shit when you’re 16 and having to study King Lear for A-level. Actually, King Lear *pushes glasses higher on bridge of nose* is something of a masterpiece, in retrospect. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. I’m talking about Hamlet.

Hamlet’s one of the better-known plays, you don’t need an introduction. Having said that, I did back in 1993. All I knew was that someone had a chat with a skull and said “To be or not to be” like THAT is a profound question (it is, but really only if you’re an emo teenager, which I was not cf saving Christmas). I don’t remember exactly what prompted me to watch Franco Zeffirelli’s filmed version of Hamlet. It certainly wasn’t the presence of Mel Gibson – a man now better known for making abusive phonecalls and incredibly violent films – nor did I really know who Zeffirelli was at the time. Because I was too busy doing sports, I expect.

Hamlet, it turns out, is a very very good way to get into Shakespeare. This version, anyway. Shorn of the messy Fortinbras subplot, it becomes a straight-up family drama with ghosts, murders and madness in bountiful supply. Mel is well used to playing sparklingly unhinged and gives his Hamlet a frisky edginess that just about lets him get away with the over-familiar lines. Helena Bonham-Carter, at this point the wispy darling of British Film before becoming everyone’s favourite Goth Auntie, plays Ophelia limpid-eyed, brittle and, ultimately, jabberingly weird. It’s not her fault, it’s the script.

I’m not going to go through the entire cast like this. ALAN BATES LOOKED LIKE HE SMELLED OF MEAT. GLENN CLOSE DIED WELL. Whatever. This isn’t a critique. I’m just trying to impress upon you that for whatever reason, it worked. It’s a stripped down, smart interpretation of a long and complicated play. You could film it all, and Kenneth Branagh did exactly that a few years later to much adulation, but why bother? Do the good bits, get some big names (and some journeyman thesps) in to give it a bit of appeal and send it out there. I eventually found my way to the library and, after giving a nerd a wedgie, sat down and read the play. So, you know, for all that it looks like Shakespeare-lite, it’s worth looking at the plays and working out what makes a good film, rather than just trying to stage the play in front of a camera. Who knows, you might just get some more of those cynical, beautiful athletic types interested.

Romeo & Juliet (d. Franco Zeffirelli) by Viv Wilby

One of my university lecturers used to say that Romeo & Juliet was a play about doing it for the first time (while Antony & Cleopatra was a play about doing it for the last time). I wasn’t by any means doing it when I was 15 or so, but would enjoy regular, secretive trysts with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version, glorying in all that beautiful doomed love with the living room curtains pulled firmly to.

I guess Shakespeare has lasted because every generation makes him over in their own image. Romeo & Juliet was the perfect text for the sex-soaked hedonistic sixties: youth and beauty and rebellion underpinned with an “all you need is love” message. Zeffirelli’s casting of the principals was age-appropriate (Leonard Whiting was 17 and Olivia Hussey 16), notoriously so, as he had them play a nude, bedroom scene. It’s also famous for the screen debut of a very pretty Bruce ‘Withnail & I’ Robinson (as Romeo’s cousin Benvolio) and Nino Rota’s lovely score, which became better known in the 1980s as the Simon Bates ‘Our Tune’ music.

Zeffirelli is brutal with the text – entire soliloquies are junked, speeches boiled down to one or two phrases, Act 4 is over in about three minutes – but what he loses in poetry he makes up for in visual richness and texture. Keeping firmly to a fifteenth century, Italian setting, it’s a Renaissance painting come to life, all heavy velvets and pied-piper leggings, the Montagues in soft greys and blues, the Capulets in scarlet and gold. This is tempered with just a touch of 60s styling: Romeo’s Beatles mop top, Juliet’s sheet of raven hair centre-parted like she’s Joan Baez or Ally McGraw.

The inexperienced Whiting and Hussey may be gorgeous but sometimes struggle to convey the passion and emotional depth their roles demand. Strong supporting performances from Pat Heywood as the Nurse, John McEnery as Mercutio and Milo O’Shea as the Friar lend credibility and weight to the central pair and help make the whole thing work. Despite the lush colour, there’s something of Italian neorealism to these wealthy Veronese and their extended households and the film is at its best in the busy scenes of people bickering, dancing, arguing, fighting. You feel the heat and dust of Italy in high summer, so easy to get carried away, so many tempers on a hair trigger: shirts stick to skin, fringes are plastered to foreheads, the fatal duel at the story’s midpoint, when the comedy spirals horribly into tragedy, is drawn out and scrappy and exhausting to watch.

Shakespeare wrote better plays than Romeo & Juliet, and there are more interesting films of his work. I would learn all this later. But you never forget your first.

Romeo + Juliet (d. Baz Luhrmann) by Lissy Lovett

I saw this film when it first came out at the now closed Cannon Cinema on Norwich’s Prince of Wales Road with my mum. I was 19 and already a Shakespeare fan, but it still blew my mind. It remains one the very few film watching experiences I’ve had where the audience clapped at the end, and I don’t think I was far off giving it a standing ovation.

Shakespeare frequently baffles me on first viewing, it’s full of odd words in a strange order and people making jokes and insults that haven’t travelled well through the ages. Romeo + Juliet made perfect sense. For the first time I took onboard the gang warfare background that underpins the whole plot, and clever tricks like ‘Sword’ and ‘Dagger’ as the names of makes of guns and ‘Queen Mab’ as a brand of Ecstasy pill updated the text effortlessly to the modern day.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio are perfect casting. They look so very young and so very beautiful. I knew what was coming at the end, but not everyone in the Cannon Cinema did, there were a fair few gasps and a muffled cry of “no!” when Romeo takes the poison. If only he’d waited just a few more minutes! If only he actually looked at Juliet properly and noticed her eyelids were moving!

For a short while Romeo + Juliet made me think that live theatre might be dead. I wasn’t right about that, but you can still stick your ‘traditional’ Shakespeare. Give me neon lights, Des’ree and Hawaiian shirts over doublet and hose any day.

Othello (d. Oliver Parker) by the Tramp

othello 1995

Oliver Parker’s Othello arrived on cinema screens a year before Baz Luhrmann gave R+J the Dynasty treatment, but two years after the success of his Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. You may remember this period, you may not, but as a student studying English at GCSE and then A-Level I remember being rather excited by the renaissance that Shakespeare seemed to be having on screen. The stilted videos of 1970s theatrical productions brushed aside in favour of lively delivery and film stars in key roles. It was refreshing and reminded everyone that Shakespeare’s plays lived on for a reason.

I was particularly excited by the arrival of Othello, my favourite Shakespeare play, where jealousy breeds jealousy from insecurity and social inequality.  Most writers would tackle the story of just how it was that the dark moor Othello, a man who has against all the odds risen through the ranks of the army and society, came to marry society heiress and ivory skinned beauty Desdemona, the epitome, surely of love conquers all. But with Othello the happy ending is the beginning, and what comes next is not happy at all. It is the way in which jealousy can sour even the greatest of loves and insecurity and ego can be used against even the noblest of people. It is a play that highlights the worst of us all and trashes the happy ending so utterly that even the most cynical of us can only wish it weren’t so.

Parker’s Othello has two things going for it – Kenny and Larry. As Othello, Laurence Fishburne, brought a strong physicality and intelligence to the role. His Othello is duped, but is no dope. Even as you know his fate you are rooting for him, hoping he will wake up, realise what he has, and what poison he is ingesting. With Branagh as Iago the duplicity of the character is believable. He is Othello’s best friend and biggest enemy. There are critics of the play who wonder how it is that Othello could be so taken in by Iago, but surely not here.  In his adaptation Parker finds two leads who embody their roles so that it is character, and not language, that shines through.

When you look back at the Shakespeare and Shakespeare-reinterpreted boom of the 90’s (10 Things I Hate About You, Romeo + Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in Love, Twelfth Night, Hamlet) Othello rarely figures on the list, but for me it shines as one of the most successful adaptations from stage to screen that there has ever been.

Much Ado About Nothing (d. Joss Whedon) by Jim Eaton-Terry

Joss Whedon has a really nice house

The story of how the 2012 movie of Much Ado About Nothing came to be made got far more publicity than the film itself; Taking a holiday between production and edit on his first real Hollywood juggernaut, Avengers Assemble, Whedon decided to recharge his batteries by filming a bunch of his friends performing his favourite play at his (really, really nice) house.

Because his friends form a loose repertory company of cult TV stars, the resulting black and white comedy got a full release a year after Avengers Assemble, but was pretty quickly forgotten as the Marvel machine ground on into Age Of Ultron.

Watched again, now, Much Ado is as loose and funny as any Shakespeare adaptation, with the casual modern dress and throwaway flickers of updating (the men have guns, but it’s never particularly highlighted) giving the sense that you’re seeing the universe of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but filmed in crisp black and white.

Whedon’s insistence on casting his mates – and thus the alumni of his various TV shows – is what makes the film special. Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk manage the almost impossible task of making the comic characters in any Shakespeare play actually funny, while the ensemble create the sense of a world in which the twists and turns of the plot have weight and impact.

For anyone familiar with Whedon’s back catalogue, though, all the above is really a sideshow – Much Ado is really about the reunion of Angel’s two most fascinating actors, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. Their chemistry and ease with each other carries the whole film along, cutting through the rhythms of the text to create the atmosphere of a classical romantic comedy. It’s also just lovely to see them act out a happy ending.

Particularly in such a really, spectacularly nice house. Do you have an amphitheatre in your garden?

Nathan Fillion, casually achieving the impossible.
Nathan Fillion, casually achieving the impossible.

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