Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

A few new ways to see Shakespeare

By - Jul 20th, 2009 09:58 am

moving pictures slings and arrows

Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows

There is a lot of Shakespeare on film – much of it declaimed, pompous and stale, and a contribution to the decline in people who know and love the man and his writing. Occasionally someone throws something new at an old play and it works for a moment. I like the Romeo & Juliet that DiCaprio and Claire Danes do in Baz Luhrmann’s Brazilian version. But I am partial to anything Baz Luhrmann tries. I think Claire Danes is the real thing and DiCaprio, when he is playing within his age and maturity range, can be very good. The Zeffirelli R&J is good primarily because John McEnery’s Mercutio is so madly and beautifully in love with Romeo. The boy and girl are attractive to look at and they are as young as they are stated to be in the play, so there is a nice verisimilitude there.

Hamlet and what I call “The Scottish Play” (not Brigadoon) are the most frequently done on film, TSP (as it shall henceforth be known) because it is a great crowd pleaser of a story about greed, ambition, and sex and Hamlet because it is the greatest character study in all of literature. So much so that Harold Bloom, in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, states roughly that only with Hamlet did human beings begin to think of themselves as complex and complicated creatures.

The old Midsummer Night’s Dream with Jimmy Cagney as Bottom is camp and fun, but it is a play that succeeds more in the flesh. They all succeed more when they are alive in front of you, but so few people go to the theatre anymore that it is nice to have these stories and the language delivered up to us on film and television in different ways. But iambic pentameter does not fit well in every actor’s mouth and the plays are long so it is difficult to get people to go see a movie from a Shakespeare play. However, there are other ways to get your fix of William Shakespeare.

There is an absolutely great Canadian television series that seems to have lasted only three seasons called Slings & Arrows. The title is, of course, taken from the Hamlet soliloquy: “To be, or not to be – that is the question: / Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep…” That just about says it all in any venue.

The leading actor in the series is Paul Gross, who played the Dane in a celebrated production of Hamlet at Stratford, Ontario, where they do a lot of different classical and new plays, but the focus is, and has been since Sir Tyrone Guthrie searched for and found the little out-of-the-way village in Canada, primarily Shakespeare. Slings & Arrows takes place in a town named New Burbage and at a theatre company called The New Burbage, which is based, very openly and indeed satirically, on the festival at Stratford. In the third season William Hutt, who was always one of the mainstays of the company at Stratford, comes to The New Burbage to do a production of King Lear. Unbeknownst to anyone, he is dying of cancer. Mr. Hutt was indeed dying of cancer when they filmed the season, so there is a circularity and a synchronicity that is planned, self-conscious, and self-reverential and makes for delightful comedy and very deliberate pathos.

The series works whether you are a member of the tribe of people who create theatre, or if you are one who attends and appreciates the theatre. If you find yourself in one of those two categories, there is so much fun, inside humor, clever references, intimacy and passion, as well as superstition, ghosts and nervous breakdowns, that you will swoon at almost every moment of Slings & Arrows. If you aren’t in one of these two groups you will probably get much of it but I would suggest you start going to see as much Shakespeare and other theatre as you can fit into your lives so that you will get it all, because it is well worth it.

In the first season the company tackles Hamlet, directed by Gross’s character Geoffrey Tennant, who has taken over the Artistic Directorship of The New Burbage. The play had previously sent him into a nervous breakdown, which may well have cost him his career as an actor. This chance to direct and to run the theatre is probably his chance at redemption. The series works because it so lovingly reveals all the jobs that it takes to manage a theatre company. The wide range of egos and eccentricities that are tolerated, nay, embraced in the theatre are on display here from the front office secretaries who really run the place to the stage hands whose romances and contributions so often go over looked, with vaguely talented but cute leading men and bitter actresses in between.

In the second season they produce TSP with all its accompanying superstitions, tragedies and successes, complete with their very own theatre ghost, without whom Geoffrey would never be able to pull it off. And the final season is the magnificent William Hutt, addicted to heroin, dying of cancer and heroically finishing his swan song as King Lear. Sarah Polley, who has turned out to be a skilled director as well as a complicated ingénue, is Cordelia.

moving pictures macbeth

James McAvoy in ShakespeaRe-told

Yet another way to watch Shakespeare without having to try to understand all the language is a mini-series produced for the BBC in London called ShakespeaRe-told. They have taken four plays and set them in modern times with modern language and circumstances. I have only been able to watch Much Ado About Nothing and The Scottish Play (still not Brigadoon) but I like much about each. The Beatrice and Benedict relationship is well played and clear in the retelling. Much of the subplot of Hero and Claudius is unfinished and not cleverly handled. Beatrice and Benedict are the model for much of the romantic comedies of the American cinema through out the ‘30s and ‘40s, and anytime you can go back to the original, even without Shakespeare’s stunning dialogue, it is well worth it. James McAvoy plays the lead in TSP as the lead chef in one of only two Michelin three-star restaurants in London. It is not Kings and Queens, and it’s not politics per se, but anyone familiar with the restaurant business, and particularly high-end restaurants in large cities, will recognize the tensions and the potential for violent emotions that move the play forward.

The stories, most of which Shakespeare himself borrowed from elsewhere, are wonderful. And that is what remains in these re-tellings. They have assembled some of the best actors in England to take these parts and explore them in a modern situation with contemporary language. Much of it is successful and some of it is not, but it is worth watching.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Movies

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