“For nearly half a century, students have been told that Shakespeare is theatre and his plays essentially performance texts. The way to teach Shakespeare is to perform him. The method is reading aloud, acting out scenes, learning Elizabethan stage practice, and, not incidentally, looking at the movies. Shakespeare is easy, not hard; he is a working playwright, not a precious ‘poet’; he is a craftsman, not an artist; and, most significantly, he is a capitalist, a shareholder in a business venture who retired at an early age on a comfortable pension, not some poor schlemiel living in a garret and practicing his ‘art’ for its own sake. Shakespeare, it turns out, is really one of us.”
“No matter how deeply the text is cut, no matter how updates the setting, no matter how avant-garde the production, Shakespeare films […] exhibit an almost mystical devotion to Shakespeare’s words – the language and diction of Elizabethan English, a language and diction at once poetic and theatrical. […] no other writer has had his or her words treated with a similar fidelity. The temptation to simply paraphrase Shakespeare’s language is almost always resisted.”
Anderegg’s take on Shakespeare film is a weird one. I don’t agree with much that was written, but it made me re-evaluate (by watching once again the movies) some of the things I thought I knew about some Shakespeare movies of my personal acquaintance: Branagh’s, Luhrman’s, Zeffireli’s, Whedon’s, etc. Rather than regurgitate Anderegg’s arguments (some of them seemed very convoluted, particularly when it came to analyzing Branagh’s work: “Much Ado About Nothing”, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, and “Hamlet”), I’ll give you instead my take on the movies I’ve seen recently. It goes without saying, I’ve re-watched some of them just to make sure my vision was still true…
I’ve seen Shakespeare’s lines being deliberately mutilated. Shakespeare (or the editors) deliberately jam those 14 syllables into a 10 syllable (5 meters) poetic line. That, as a performer, tells me the character has a lot going on (emotionally) in those moments (look at many of Lady Macbeth’s monologues in the Scottish play- extra syllables and enjambment all over the place). So with the "O, Romeo" line, the actor can take the easy way out (and ruin the poetic meter) or deal with the poetry and use the elisions and repetition in a way that Shakespeare purposely wrote it. Perhaps with a sense of urgency, fear, excitement etc., but not (in my opinion) in a slow, elongating, contemplative moment, which many performers think it calls for.
It might be a case that we have seen it done on film and in contemporary theatre performances so often that way (badly) that young actors think that that is how to perform the moment. One could also argue that Shakespeare is all about reinvention and that staying within the meter is not that important. Personally, I believe we never "Act" the poetry, but we need to scan the poetry to find the "clues" to characterization that Shakespeare as a writer gives us in the abnormal poetic lines. It is always interesting how 11 syllables is often a sign of strong emotions. A few months I watched several “Much Ado About Nothing” films (Branagh’s, BBC’s, etc.) Watching both films one after the other brought to my attention the way one of Beatrice's speeches can be uttered. For me, both of the lines below ending in "thee" are 11 syllable lines, and, of course, we know the elation Beatrice must be feeling having just overheard Hero and Ursula reveal that Benedick is in love with her:
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand:
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly.
I do love the clues that Shakespeare gives to a performer in his irregular lines. He splits those two lines with the very irregular line which scans as: /trochee/ iamb/ trochee/ iamb/ iamb/ "Taming/ my wild/ heart to/ thy lov/ ing hand/
The two trochees are this little moment of chaos, and then it resolves back to order.
I keep digging into Shakespeare and realize I have just scratched the surface. More and more worlds and insights appear. You have to put his words in one’s mouth and let them roll around in there.
Branagh’s and Whedon’s versions are very different from one another. While Branagh's version of the play was kind of rustic and matched the play's settings and time, I felt that Whedon's version was something new, modern and different. The whole Black and White thing worked for me. I enjoyed the 'suits' and 'limousine' feel which added to the richness of the movie. I found it clever that the Director chose to make Conrade a woman, having an affair with Don John (!) rather than sticking to the original idea of Conrade being one of the male followers of Don John.
With regard to the "Kill Claudio" segment in Whedon's adaptation, I could definitely feel the anger and frustration in Beatrice's lines. Amy Acker has acted phenomenally throughout the movie, and has only increased my admiration for the strong, feminist Beatrice.
The use of color or black and white is an interesting decision made by these two directors. Branagh's use of color lends a happy, comic tone to the entire movie. He reinforces this with music, and the camera angles and camera movement. The camera "dances" about like a happy individual, soaring up, and swirling around at times. So the tone is predominantly very light. This means Branagh has to be careful to lend the appropriate amount of seriousness to the scenes where things become dangerous for Hero.
Conversely, Whedon chooses black and white and a film noir tone, almost a detective story seriousness. So he has to make sure that comedy shows through where appropriate. To counteract the seriousness there is a certain amount of slapstick, visual comedy such as when Beatrice is overhearing the conversation about herself in the kitchen and also where Benedick is being called in for dinner and is trying to impress Beatrice with his physical fitness. I think these scenes work well in this black and white, modern setting and bring some needed levity to the tension.
Branagh has succeeded in bringing out the Elizabethan costumes and acting to the fore. The first scene, in which Beatrice and Benedick have a 'war of words' has been shot extremely well, what with the other characters encouraging them and hooting around them. It meant that this war of words was a natural, and on-going battle between the two youngsters and that everyone was aware of it.
What I also found interesting were the choices made by both actresses who play Beatrice. I Whedon's version, Beatrice's actions are in line with the setting. Modern, small, closed and in keeping with a modern day woman who feels let down by life and has allowed her world to shrink smaller to accommodate her mood. She is not bitter as much as resigned. Her anger at Claudio reads more like heartache for her cousin and the unfairness of it all. She is a woman, resigned to the fact that a man must do her bidding. In Branagh's version Beatrice is larger, more resistant to the constraints of her role as a woman. She too has given up on love. She uses her wit to battle men from her position. A position she chafes against at every chance. When she demands that her love kill Claudio she is filled with anger and with frustration at the constraints of her sex. If she were a man she would not have to rely on anyone to avenge her cousin, she would be free to do so. She is free to walk around the bright, vast grounds but she is constrained by the fact that she is a woman. Branagh's Beatrice is angry, not just at the injustice done to her cousin, but the injustice done to her by being born a woman.
I also realized that these directors had made the same decision that we all did, they had made Shakespeare their own and presented it to the world, and who was I to criticize that kind of courage? Kenneth Branagh adds on all the splendor, drama and extravagance without making it vulgar. He depicts the characters as happy, full of bustling life, enjoying a splendid day with a field picnic and fine literature; making memories. Emma Thompson, who happens to be one of my favorite actresses, reprises her role of the sarcastic and witty person from “Sense and Sensibility” and she is again brilliant at it. She decides to depict Beatrice as full of a witty light, a happy and positive creature, one admired and loved by all. Again Beatrice gets an air of bouncy extravagance. Now with Joss Whedon’s film, we experience not a total but a partial antithetical departure from the earlier film version. Beatrice here is the same sarcastic and witty person we know but is a shade darker and not just because of her noir colors. This is a real, relatable person, who has experienced her fair share of unpleasantness in life. That comes out splendidly from the actresses. I think we understand Beatrice a lot more and deeply in the second movie. Whedon appears to have turned this into a mafia genre and all for the better. He blends centuries old characters seamlessly and poetically into a world of the 20s (approximately).
Branagh brings us in over the country side, (after the beautiful recital of Sigh No More), and in to the villa. Lush and romantic. Making clear this is a story from the past. But it's also a place we know at least from modern tourist brochures, if we haven't visited the region itself. It's a setting we can understand, setting us up for a story that is still in a world we understand. And as we come in closer it's a world with absolutely seductive happenings. We'd love to be part of that world.
Whedon has a wonderful prologue before the credits. A man creeping out of the bed where he's had (we assume) a one night stand. And the woman is not so impressed when she wakes and realises this. Of course, it's Beatrice who's less than impressed with Benedict's manner. Setting up her later annoyance with him and urge to take him down a peg or two. And also fixing with references in the play later on to their shared past. This also sets us very firmly in our modern world - Sex and the City, indeed. So, a story that's very much part of our contemporary world - even if we don't have wonderful homes like that. And this also works well with making Conrad into Conrade. Remember the scene in the Whedon that starts with Don John groping her on the bed before they're interrupted. An interesting interpretation of the power relationship between them, and a good reason for Conrade to happily be a hanger-on of Don John. Whedon's filming in a modern home also augments this feeling that this is a story of our day - let alone the mood that communicates of a group of friends coming together to do this play. Branagh uses lenses with greater depth of field, and sharpness. One of the pleasures is watching the backgrounds. Even in scenes just between two characters there is often a lot going in - quite clearly - in the background. Whedon generally uses shallower depth of field, throwing a different focus on the characters in the scene. I don't prefer one or the other. Both are legitimate. Noticing this, there is a wonderful pleasure to be had from the Whedon watching his mise-en-scene, and the constantly evolving frame compositions. Whedon doesn't use tight close-ups as much as Branagh, but his framings really do reflect the changing relationships of a scene. In a scene with three characters, shots will alternate between two shots and singles, but changing as one character gets more in sync with another, moves into the frame and the other drops out. Branagh's framing and compositions also keep moving, and just as intelligibly. It's worth following both films for this aspect alone. The soundtrack. The music by Patrick Doyle is of course one of the joys of Branagh's version. And it is very much to the foreground. Whedon uses his score more surreptitiously. Overtly, we hardly notice it. But it's often there, subliminally reinforcing the emotion of a given moment. His songs are also appropriately right, if not as sublimely original as Sigh No More in the Branagh.
Surely with Shakespeare there can be no definitive version - and who would want it? His genius is that different performances can highlight different ideas in the play. A few months ago, I saw “LOVE'S LABOUR'S WON” - yes, that title. It's actually a recent RSC presentation of Love's Labour's Lost, which they apparently mounted in tandem with “Love's Labour's Won”, seeing both plays as a pair, taking place before and after World War I. (They've been screening as events in some cinemas around the world recently.) Here one of the big gains was in the presentation of Dogberry. Sometimes I find Shakespeare's comic characters ones you need to make a few allowances of credibility for. But here, Dogberry comes across as a soldier, back from the trenches, somewhat shell-shocked and/or gassed. No wonder he muddles his words. No wonder his colleagues make allowances and go along with him.
I’m also familiar with Baz Luhrman's style of cinema. “The Great Gatsby”, which incidentally casted Leonardo DiCaprio again, made sure of that. And his style was much suited to a story like that of Gatsby's rather than for a soft classic like Romeo and Juliet. I might sound like a bit traditionalist, but I do not, at all, agree with this adaptation. Indeed Shakespeare might have rolled in his grave or filed a suit against Luhrman. He obviously wanted to adapt the play to a modern time, but in doing so, it lost some its basic defining characteristics and its subtlety. The costumes and the decor were altogether another story, an awful one at that. Mr. Luhrman here emphasizes the crossing of the stars that is so much associated with Romeo and Juliet. He wakes Juliet up just in time to see her beloved on the brink of death, just enough to allow a small exchange of words and an enormous regret and then she sets out to join Romeo. The camera's focus on DiCaprio's and Danes' young faces kind of brings about a raw and bewildered innocence to the scene and portrays their suffering throughout their life through their family feud and now at this last hour. It feels almost criminal that such young and angelic faces should suffer so much. Of course the death is more drawn out and dramatized and Fr. Lawrence is nowhere to be seen and this I do not accept and neither the fact that Juliet blows her brains out. This implementation of modern tools somehow makes the tragedy a little less sacred and bit more profane and vulgar, though the flashback entire-life-passing-through-your-eyes-scene is a noteworthy addition.
Now, Mercutio's death is a little more violent and lacks the grace of this. The scene and the settings are again dramatized, what with the weather acting up. You do feel relieved at Mercutio's death but dread what is going to follow. The camera's focus on the market near the beach and the beach itself distracts you from the death. A punk twenty something uttering his last dying words on a beach sounds more out of a drug-deal-gone-bad-flick than a Shakespearean classic.
While reading Anderegg’s take on Shakespearean film, I also took the time to look at six different versions of THE TEMPEST, and it's fascinating to look at them all in a short space of time.
I started with a version from 1908 (it's also on YouTube.) Of course, it reflects the early stages of cinema, and is only 12 minutes long. So a lot of plot lines vanish and because of the need for very strong light to register on the primitive film stock, it's all filmed outdoors - with some very theatrical backdrops used. Outdoors is not a problem for THE TEMPEST, of course. Already, cinematically you can see editing being used effectively to achieve particular effects and convey story points. Understandably, at 12 minutes, the plot is quite truncated - how Prospero and Miranda got to the island is completely passed over. But it makes an interesting starting point for THE TEMPEST at the movies
In 1979 Derek Jarman - British visual artist, gay activist especially after his diagnosis with AIDS, provocateur - made a very low budget version. Perhaps the story line is not as emphasised as it could have been, but it is a visual feast. Scenes look deliriously like they've been staged using any and everything that could be begged or borrowed from some Rococo or Baroque opportunity shops. And poor Ferdinand loses all his clothes in the shipwreck so this handsome Adonis has to wander around completely naked and unashamed for quite a while into the film. It's probably described as a traditional imagining of the play with more attention to its visuals than to its story or themes. But it's a version to certainly be enjoyed for its visuals.
I think most people would be aware of Julie Taymor's version - especially from the clips used in the lectures for our course. The transformation of Prospero into Prospera works overall, I feel, with perhaps only tiny little niggles you may have. The play to me has very much the feel of a parent reaching the stage in life when consideration must be given to leaving the child safely provided for in all ways - materially and emotionally. Giving this concern to a mother adds an interesting dimension to this parental concern. Of course, with Prospero there can be a sexual undertone to his relationship with his daughter, especially when they are the only two of their kind on an island. He knows he needs to provide a partner for his daughter. At the same time, there is an inevitable potential for an element of jealousy towards the man who take his daughter from him. There is just so much to love in this film, including the wonderful visuals. How well cinema can materialise (and de-materialise) the character of Ariel.
Also in Anderegg’s book is his take on Zeffireli’s version. It´s interesting to compare the lush vegetation in Zeffirelli´s version with the George Cukor´s Balcony Scene, in the 1936 film version (Norma Shearer & Leslie Howard as R&J - available in https://youtu.be/pblrEyCJLg8).
No exaggerated greenery in Cukor´s Capulet´s garden (?). The scene depicts a fairly realistic Italian orchard, sober, almost bare, with some plants around and a few fruits tree (mentioned in the text: “Lady, by yonder blessèd moon I vow/That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops”) and Cukor's Romeo climbs a wall and not a tree (as Zeffirelli´s) to approach Juliet. In fact Shakespeare´s text calls the place an “orchard” and not a “garden” and he does not need vegetation to hide Romeo, as: "I have night’s cloak to hide me from their eyes..."
There is a danger over-interpretation in this line of discussion. I credit the lush vegetation in the 1968 film version to Zeffirelli´s style and nothing else. He may have intended all sorts of symbolic imageries (enchanted forest, youth, Garden of Eden, a tribute to the 1960´s emerging ecological consciousness, etc.) in line with his romantic interpretation of the play. But the fact is that Zeffirelli´s style in this film IS “over” and not just as far as greeneries are concerned. The “hide and seek” performance of R&J in the party is an example of his style of direction, leading to over-acting by Olivia Hussey and driving the scene to a comic if not ridiculous tone. The same style can be appreciated in other movies by Zeffirelli, especially in his biography of Saint Francis ("Fratello sole, sorella luna") which dates from the same period (1972) and has a “colour and atmosphere” very close to his R&J. Compare. A “lush vegetation” scene – this time surrounding Francis and Clare - is also used there. The scene is available in Youtube: https://youtu.be/yyMr6VEJQzU.
Sorry if I've gone on a bit about this. Shakespeare and cinema are both two of my favourite subjects. When I get going, it’s hard to stop…