The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good — in spite of all the people who say he is very good.
Robert Graves in The Observer (London), “Sayings of the Week”, (12/06/64)
I’ve been having a private Shakespeare festival at home over the last few weeks, watching as many DVDs of the plays as I can get my hands on. Coming out of it I have to say that I think The Bard has been very well served by cinema over the years, whether it be the films of that colossus Laurence Olivier (Hamlet, Richard III and HenryV), Kenneth Branagh’s remarkable cinematic re-visionings (Henry V and Hamlet particularly wonderful), Derek Jarman’s punkarised (sic) Tempest, Julie Taymor’s ferocious Titus Andronicus, or Baz Lurhmann’s dazzling Romeo and Juliet set in contemporary L.A.! It really shouldn’t work at all, but in the right hands Shakespeare’s plays seem to adapt better to the cinema than those of almost any other playwright I can think of. And did I mention Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Hollywood production of Julius Caesar from 1953, priceless if for no other reason than that it contains Marlon Brando’s sensational Marc Anthony!
You can have your own Shakespeare festival at the Library, and here are just a few suggestions to start you off.
This is an online resource which you can access from home if you’re one of our Victorian registered users. The authors examine various aspects of Shakespeare on film in chapters such as, Authorship: Getting Back to Shakespeare: Whose Film is it Anyway? by Elsie Walker, Gender Studies: Shakespeare, Sex, and Violence: Negotiating Masculinities in Branagh’s Henry V and Taymor’s Titus by Pascale Aebischer, and Cross-Cultural Interpretation: Reading Kurosawa Reading Shakespeare by Anthony Dawson.
Between 1978 and 1985 the BBC filmed all of Shakespeare’s plays in one of the most ambitious productions it had yet attempted. Using some of the world’s finest Shakespearean actors as well as directors at home in both theatre and film, this colossal undertaking resulted in this remarkable collection, available for viewing here at the Library. Just type the words “Shakespeare collection” into our catalogue and you’ll find the complete listing. Zounds!
In the 1950s the Marlowe Society at Cambridge University was commissioned by The British Council to record all of Shakespeare’s plays for what was to become a highly esteemed set of vinyl record albums. The Library holds many of these very fine sets in our audio collection, and they include some notable names such as Dorothy Tutin, Patrick Wymark, Peggy Ashcroft and even a young Prunella Scales, pre-Sybil Fawlty days! There is something very special about hearing Shakespeare’s poetry spoken without cinematic/theatrical trappings when the voices are as characterful as these.
I can recall the hullabaloo when the new Globe Theatre was being planned and built; talk of the sky falling, museum culture, backward looking, etc., etc. ad nauseum! How depressing for the doomsayers that it’s actually been quite a success, and has indeed been the location for some fairly adventurous and provocative productions. Fortunately for those of us living somewhat too far to commute, some of their performances have been captured on video and are now being released on DVD, such as this delightful production of As You Like It in a production by Thea Shorrock. We have also recently received Dominic Dromgoole’s extremely well received production of Romeo and Juliet, praised for its lightness of touch and the refreshing youthfulness of its lovers. Bravo!
As if proof of Shakespeare’s universality were needed, it could be argued that two of the very greatest Shakespearean films ever made are infact Japanese. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth), and Ran (based on King Lear) are so breathtaking in their cinematic treatment of these two plays that once seen it’s difficult to imagine them visualised any other way. And the great Toshiro Mifune’s psychotic Washizu/Macbeth goaded into outrage by the chilling ambition of Isuzu Yamada’s Lady Washizu count as two of the great screen performances, in my book!
To finish, a quote from another great artist:
But my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy.
Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to Theo van Gogh (July 1880)