Thursday, April 24, 2014

Happy 450th Birthday, Willy S.!

D'oh! I thought I posted this yesterday, but alas, I did not. Hark, here is my tribute to The Bard on his 450th birthday...belatedly. Many apologies.


Like many of you, I came to Shakespeare through school. In 9th grade, when I was 14, we read "Romeo & Juliet."

And that was it. I was hooked.

I was the only person in my class who got an "A" on the homework assignment to take a chunk of dialogue and "translate" it into modern, 20th century speak. (Of course, Shakespeare did write in "modern" English, but I digress.)

Over the next few years I read more plays and sonnets, and watched stage and cinema adaptations of his work. Sometimes I read or saw them for fun, sometimes it was for school. Either way, I was hard-pressed to find anything written by Shakespeare that I didn't love. In high school I bought a Shakespeare t-shirt, which I still own. In college I took a "Shakespeare on Film" course as an elective. In a class on theater in Ancient Greece I wrote a paper comparing "The Orestia" to "Hamlet." I've read and seen "Hamlet" more times than I can possibly count. (Can we please give the Melancholy Dane a break?)

I've been to "Sleep No More" three times -- and I'd go more if it weren't $100 per ticket -- because it combines all my favorite things: "MacBeth," weird theater, gratuitous nudity and fighting, booze, and scary, fucked-up immersive experiences.

When my husband does "Sleep No More," he keeps getting
kidnapped by the Red Witch/Hecate. Here is the proof of her
interference in my marriage. What can I say, he likes
pushy, evil redheads.

The "St. Crispin's Day" speech from "Henry V" remains my favorite thing ever written in the English language, ever. No matter how many times I hear it or read it, I still get goosebumps.

But enough of my credentials.

One of my favorite things about Shakespeare's work is the timeless quality of the stories. Love, revenge, jealousy, misunderstandings, power struggles -- these are all as relevant today as they were four hundred-plus years ago. The circumstances may change, but the motivations, actions, and fall-out are all pretty much the same.

Because of this, Shakespeare is open to a lot of interpretation. Most of it is good; I really, really detest straight-up, dry performances of the plays. What I love best is when actors, directors, producers, and everyone else on the crew really get into setting a play in a new time and place, and do fun things with the roles.

Unfortunately, I can't link to my favorite stage adaptations of Shakespeare, like the one of "The Tempest" I saw in college where the only set design was a silver parachute and all the actors used crumbled up brown paper bags as costumes as they came on stage. Sounds silly, but since I'm not a fan of "The Tempest" anyway, it totally worked. Or the Shakespeare in the Park production of "Love's Labours Lost" I saw last summer which was so funny I actually fell out of my seat from laughing so hard.

Without further (much) ado (ha! See what I did there?), here are some of my favorite cinematic Shakespeare adaptations.

Romeo + Juliet, 1996

"Romeo and Juliet" is not my favorite of the tragedies -- I generally think the two main characters are dumb teenagers -- but I really love this movie. The casting is superb; who knew John Leguizamo had it in him? I love the guns instead of swords. I love the colors, the music, the party scene. I love Paul Rudd as Paris dressed like an astronaut. This is pretty much perfect as far as modern interpretations for film go. And that's what Shakespeare should be - modern, fun, exciting, approachable. That's what his plays were back in the 1600s. Once you get past the flowr'y language and twisty phrasing, you can see how great these stories truly are.

Richard III, 1995

As if we all need another reason to love Sir Ian McKellen, right?

If nothing else, this version of "Richard III" stands out for Sir Ian's delivery of the opening speech. You know it: "Now is the winter of our discontent," blah blah blah. He breaks down the Fourth Wall throughout the movie, but in this speech he's winking, nudging, beckoning -- literally, with his hand -- the camera. It sets the stage for what feels like 1940s melodrama (the time period in which this particular interpretation is set) and it totally works. So, so, so much.

Titus, 1999

This is not an easy movie to watch, but then - it's not a pleasant play to read, either. Generally regarded as one of Shakespeare's bloodiest dramas, with the highest body count, Titus -- shortened from "Titus Andronicus" -- has pretty much everything out of our worst nightmares, including (but not limited to) rape, dismemberment, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. Good times, right?

So why do I love this movie so much?

It's due a lot to the out-of-the-ballpark performances by several of my favorite actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Alan Cumming. But the vast majority of my praise gets heaped on Julie Taymore for creating such a lush, vivid movie full of colors and epic sets. I mean, EPIC. Taymor is a master at manipulating shadow and light, utilizing out-of-the-box imagery (like puppets), and creating worlds and characters that feel somehow, simultaneously so real and yet so unearthly. It's impossible to watch this movie and not have a strong reaction to it.

Hamlet, 2009

Ok, so my husband thinks I'm anti-intellectual because I don't consider "Hamlet" to be my favorite of Shakespeare's works. After reading it a bajillionty times and watching approximately ten thousand BBC stage productions of it for school, I'm kind of sick of the guy. He's so naval-gazy and annoying. "Oooh, poor me, what do I do?" Maybe I am anti-intellectual, but if I'm going to watch a play I'd rather see the action of "MacBeth" than listen to Hamlet talk to himself indecisively for eleventy thousand hours.

That said, I can't really make a "Best Of" list about Shakespeare without including his most famous work, right? Then the question becomes, which version? There are SO MANY. Seriously. It's like the very fate of humanity itself rests on doing a version of "Hamlet" every year or so.

My personal unit of measurement for how well a "Hamlet" is done is very simple: The speech.

You know which speech. The most famous speech in the history of English. "To be, or not to be." And so on and so forth while I go get a snack, because zzzzz......

That said, to my mind, this 2009 version with David Tennant does The Speech the best. We start from behind Tennant and work our way around, and when we finally see his face, he's got his eyes closed. Bloody brilliant. The Speech is so overdone and overfamous by now that the only way to really do it well is to underact it, and Tennant freaking nails that. Well done, Tenth Doctor.

Also: Sir P Stew as the ghost father and uncle. Is there anything that man can't do?

(And honestly, if I have to suffer through Hamlet's existential crisis, I'd rather do it with this movie any day of the week.)

Now, someone please find me a way to get in contact with my favorite director, Quentin Tarantino, so I can talk him into doing a kick-ass movie version of "MacBeth." How badass would that be?

What's your favorite work by The Bard? What's your favorite movie of his work?

1 comment:

  1. I need to see Titus, though I might have to work up to it. We used to subscribe to the Shakespeare theater at Navy Pier, but they started running about 50% lousy, non-Shakespeare stuff, so now we only go to the Shakespeare ones - they've done some great versions.

    My wife loves the DiCaprio R and J - I liked it, too. One of my most vivid Henry V memories is of leaving the theater after seeing the Branagh version with my friends, joking about how we were on the verge of jumping out of our seats so we could find some French to kill.

    Oh, my favorite is I think The Tempest, though as much as I love Helen Mirren, I couldn't get through her version. I think I just love all the magical stuff. Macbeth is okay, though the first Macbeth I saw was a Kabuki version which was... well, I wouldn't recommend it.