A Waste of Shame

February 24, 2012 at 1:20 pm (Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life, Shakespeare's Sonnets) (, , )

Do the sonnets reflect the dark underbelly of Shakespeare’s love life? I watched the BBC’s 2005 A Waste of Shame which is based on this premise. Here we have Shakespeare in midlife crisis brought on by his 11-year-old son Hamnet’s death from plague. The whole world seems filled with death and filth and darkness. The theaters are closed. What is there to live for?

Love. Or maybe it’s “Love.” Or even just “luv”… as in infatuation. Shakespeare becomes infatuated with a young pretty boy, William Herbert (the fair youth). At the same time, he lusts after a half-Moor French prostitute named Lucie (the Dark Lady). Between the two, he seems to barely come up for air. But the sonnets pour from his pen in the mix of emotions from these two simultaneous infatuations.

Shakespeare eventually realizes neither of these “luvs” are all that. And when he finds that the young lad is playing house with Lucie, a double betrayal, it sends Shakespeare into a bit of a tailspin. The tailspin is furthered by his diagnosis with the “French pox” (syphilis) which kind of gives the whole infatuation thing a nasty turn, since syphilis was incurable (although we see him endure a bizarre treatment involving mercury and a soak in what looks like a torture chamber). Source of more sonnetizing.

Poor, long-suffering, sharp-tongued wife Anne Hathaway is living in poverty in Stratford with Shakespeare’s daughters. There is a creepy peeping Tom scene where Shakespeare watches her through the window. He has been not much of a husband or father, and it’s unclear what he’s feeling as he watches his wife. Shame? Wistfulness?

Shakespeare eventually has the sonnets published, and then leaves London to live his last years at home with Anne in Stratford. No more of the whoring and night life of Elizabethan London. What were those last years like for him? Was he ill? Decrepit? Depressed?

We’ll never know.

I can’t say that I loved this movie, but it was interesting. I haven’t studied or even read most of the sonnets yet. I look forward to it some day, but wonder what they mean and what the real story was behind them. I would rather think that the emotions behind Shakespeare’s love poetry were something more real or lasting… less dark than portrayed here.

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Renaissance Rom-Com

August 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm (Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) (, , , , )

I had the pleasure of watching Don Taylor’s 1983 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (part of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare series). This is one of Shakespeare’s first plays, and although it is not among his best, I find it entertaining. This BBC version remains close to the text and is easy-to-watch.

It is a straightforward Renaissance setting with lovely vistas and blue skies. Much of the courting in this courtly-love quadrangle takes place in a garden graced by statues of Amor (love) and Fides (Latin for trustworthiness). Early on, golden cherubs shoot an arrow into the sign for amor, cluing us into Proteus’s preference for following his heart at the expense of his integrity.

The play’s action is not particularly well-drawn, but Shakespeare returns in later plays to many themes raised here, so maybe it can be viewed as Shakespeare’s internship project. Proteus is a silly boy acting on infatuation, willing to give up his true love with Julia and his lifelong friendship with Valentine, hurting everyone along the way, in his efforts to win over the disdainful Silvia. Shakespeare ties up all the loose ends at the end of this play by creating a sudden and unexpected return to reality for Proteus, while everyone he has injured instantly forgives him, and all live happily ever after. It’s a bit far-fetched.

This production is fun to watch. Proteus and Valentine are both wide-eyed boys, falling in love at first sight with pretty girls and sharing trysts and secret kisses with them where ever they can. Silvia is portrayed as the other-worldly woman on a pedestal — as she walks (lightly, in flowing gowns), flower petals are strewn on her from above. She’s the object of everyone’s infatuation.

Poor Julia, who dresses as the boy Sebastian in order to visit her wayward love Proteus in Milan, is lovely and heartbroken when she sees Proteus throwing himself at Silvia.

The comic foils in this play, Speed and Launce (along with his dog, Crab), are great fun with their quick-witted wordplay, often mocking the courtly lovers. I especially enjoy Speed, Valentine’s quick-talking and always-smiling servant, who is played here by a teenager.

Along with the set and costumes, the music in this version is lovely. From the chorus at the beginning to quiet lutes in the courtly garden, the Renaissance-inspired music is a nice addition.

The other thing I really enjoy here are the actors’ facial expressions. Valentine’s wide-eyed adoration of Silvia, Speed’s mischievous smiles, Julia’s heartbroken sadness as she listens to Proteus serenade Silvia… the actors do a great job. I think my favorite of all is the Duke of Milan (played by Paul Daneman) whose steely glare and raised eyebrow show that he knows exactly what kind of “friend” Proteus is for telling him of young Valentine’s secret plan to elope with his daughter Silvia. That is a great moment.

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To Wit, To Woo

August 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm (Film Adaptations, Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

Oh, I’m tired. I’m witless from witty banter. I just finished reading Love’s Labour’s Lost and I’ve watched the 1984 Elijah Moshinsky version for the BBC Shakespeare series. I’ve watched it twice now. As I say, I am tired and witless from all the witty banter.

I had never read this play or seen it performed, so this was all new. It’s an acquired taste. I was lost the first time I watched the BBC version. The play is all about wit and puns and there’s very little action; it is difficult to keep up with the dialogue and make sense of it on casual viewing.

Then I read the play; I watched it again. Okay. I get it now. It’s very thick satire. Extremely thick, non-stop mockery of people who have nothing better to do than to be impressed with their own wit. So I say: To Wit, To Woo. That is, I think, Shakespeare’s pun on the lyrics in the final song representing the owl’s cry, “tu-whit, tu-who!”

The whole play is about wit and wooing. Or maybe, as the introduction in my text says, “Perhaps the men have been too witty to be able to woo effectively.” The banter and wordplay is just all-around too much for me. But I’m critiquing the content of the play itself, and that’s hard not to do when it’s the basis for the film.

I read that this is Shakespeare’s most intellectual play, and so one that is less accessible to modern audiences. And in fact, it probably was not originally produced for the general public, but for a learned audience who would get the thick allusions and wordplay. It’s not easy.

That said, I think that the BBC version does a good job of making it at least a bit accessible (and I’ve read that this play can also be quite enjoyable performed live… even when much of the witty banter goes right by you). There is really not a serious moment until the very end and the film keeps moving along briskly (not belaboring the wordplay at all).

The BBC setting reminds me of a Fragonard painting… a frothy 18th century French fantasia. The actors are well-suited to their roles. I especially like David Warner’s version of the endearingly goofy Don Adriano de Armado. I also enjoy the Beatrice/Benedick-esque sparring between Rosaline (Jenny Agutter) and Berowne (Mike Gwilym). But unlike Beatrice and Benedick, these characters are never developed enough in the play to really care about them and the sparring is all just verbal play — there’s little emotion behind it.

That’s a critique of the play again, not the BBC production. I cannot say I like this play much. It’s smarmy and pedantic. I feel like a pedant just saying that. When I start getting the jokes I feel like Miss Smartypants. The whole thing is making fun of smarmy pedants, but you have to be one to get the joke. And so the joke’s on you. Sneaky guy, that Shakespeare.

I appreciate that this BBC version is a fun take on Shakespeare. I can’t say I recommend this for people who are not familiar with the play. I don’t think most people will enjoy it or get much out of it on casual viewing.

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The Local News

June 18, 2010 at 11:33 pm (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

The BBC gets the job done, once again! The 2005 BBC’s Shakespeare Retold version of Much Ado About Nothing is really something! I enjoyed it quite a lot. This is a totally modern version using modern English. It is set in a TV news studio. Beatrice (played by Sarah Parish) is one of the news anchors. Benedick (Damian Lewis), a former colleague and boyfriend who jilted her three years before, is re-hired when the current co-anchor drinks himself into a little sabbatical.

Hero (Billie Piper) is the hare-brained weather girl and Claude (Tom Ellis) is a reporter. They bond over difficulty pronouncing “meteorological.” They aren’t the sharpest tacks. I liked this quite a lot. They seem so right for each other.

Benedick and Beatrice are fun and modern; I like them both and they have great chemistry. There’s a sweet scene where they bond over Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Benedick is best man for Claude and plans to read this at the wedding.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Beatrice helps him understand the lines and he’s impressed that she’s so literary. It’s sweet.

The Don John character takes a pretty major leap from the original play. Here it’s Don (Derek Riddell), the director who has just lost his wife. Hero has pity sex with him and he develops an obsession with her. He’s also drinking and gets demoted to graphics guy. Wow is he creepy. So, the motivation here is different than in the original play. He’s obsessed with Hero and his brooding jealousy of her relationship with Claude fuels the lies and deception that ruin Hero and Claude’s wedding.

Also, Hero takes a step toward modernity in standing up for herself after the jilting. The ending for Hero and Claude is quite different and more modern than Shakespeare’s ending.

The whole show is well done and very watchable. I like the way things are tied up for B&B. The final scene is quite a giggle!

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BBC = Gets the Job Done

June 11, 2010 at 8:46 pm (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

I found Stuart Burge’s 1984 version of Much Ado About Nothing (part of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare series) quite enjoyable. It’s a straightforward rendition, true to the text, and nothing odd (i.e., green fairies) or annoying (i.e., boring, beige people). There are no bicycles, no Keystone Kops, no surreal umbrellas.

This is the 35th film adaptation I’ve watched for this blog, and I’d gotten so used to gimmicks, I’d kind of forgotten that Shakespeare could be staged in a straightforward Elizabethan setting… and work! Yes, this film works for me.

The setting is not breathtaking like the luscious Tuscan villa in the Branagh version, but it’s fine. The set is a lovely castle, the costumes are lovely Elizabethan costumes, the actors are all good. Now I realize how unusual that last statement is. None of the actors stand out as incredible, I knew none of their names going into it, and I don’t recognize any of them. They’re all good! None are floundering with their lines, none seem uncomfortable in their roles… I see now that this must be very difficult to achieve with Shakespeare.

Beatrice (played by Cherie Lunghi) is quick-witted and sharp-tongued. Lunghi has Beatrice down to a T. I found myself sometimes comparing her in my mind to Emma Thompson in the role, but she doesn’t fare poorly in the comparison. I love Emma Thompson… I find her facial expressions and facility with the words really amazing. But Lunghi does a great job. Her Beatrice is a bit more uptight in prim Elizabethan outfits than Thompson’s loose-limbed ease with her open-necked bodices. But still, it works well. No complaints.

And, she’s got great chemistry with Benedick, played by Robert Lindsay (it’s funny, I see now that Lindsay also played Lysander in the BBC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I didn’t recognize him at all). I really appreciate Benedick’s transformation in the film from scruffy, bearded soldier to clean-shaven, handsome swain.

Besides B&B, the rest of the actors do admirable jobs. In the introduction in my edition of the text, it says that the character Don John is “taciturn and opaque–and for most actors almost unplayable.” I had my strong issues with Keanu Reeves in the role in Branagh’s version. With this in my mind, I admire Vernon Dobtcheff’s take on Don John in this BBC version. He’s socially awkward and villainous… a devilish combination. I think he does a good job. I’m not terribly fond of Don Pedro in this version (played by Jon Finch), but I think he’s true to the text. The more I get to know the Don Pedro character, the less I like him.

Anyway, this version is straightforward Shakespeare. Nothing fancy, but it works. It has the drawbacks, I guess, of the Elizabethan setting and British accents (for people who find that intimidating). I like it all. Thumbs up to the BBC and thumbs up to B&B. They put on quite a smooch at the end.

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A Glowing Review

May 10, 2010 at 12:45 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , )

It’s been many years since I’ve seen a ballet performed live. They can be poorly staged, or shaky and out-of-sync dancers can distract.

Or a ballet can be perfectly beautiful, glowing, entrancing, and magical—with sumptuous costumes, lavish sets, beautiful music, gorgeous dancing. That kind of experience reminds me that humans can create great beauty.

That’s what I think while watching the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, filmed in 1999 at London’s Sadler Wells Theater. Wow. Just wow.

The story starts in the forest, bypassing the opening scene with Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus. From there, it follows Shakespeare’s narrative pretty closely.

I enjoy watching the interplay between the four lovers. It is well done—the loving dance between Lysander (Ross Yearsley) and Hermia (Julie Tobiason) and then the cold Demetrius (Jeffrey Stanton) pushing away the distraught Helena (Lisa Apple). The love-juice-inspired confusion, Lysander lusting after Helena and spurning Hermia, the dueling and confusion in the foggy forest (beautiful sets!).

I enjoy the fairies, as well. Oberon (Paul Gibson) is regal and in control. Puck (Seth Belliston) is an amazing mime. Titania (Patricia Barker) is absolutely lovely. The set for her bower is gorgeous and her fairy entourage is magical.

I love it all. It is hilarious to see this nymph, this ethereal beauty, this Queen of the Fairies, dancing with the ass-headed Bottom.

The second act has little to do with Shakespeare (no mechanicals, no Pyramus and Thisby). There is the courtly wedding (including the ubiquitous Mendelssohn wedding march) and then an extended series of beautiful dances. This is grand entertainment: gorgeous dancing, beautiful sets, fantastic costumes (I love that Hippolyta actually looks like an Amazon queen!). Watching this makes me really long to see a beautiful ballet presented live.

Lovely!

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BBC = Boisterous, Beautiful, Charming, PART II

March 28, 2010 at 6:22 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

This time I really mean it! I got into the cutesy title with my last post and then as I started writing about that BBC Television Shakespeare version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I realized the title was a bit more enthusiastic than I really felt. But now I mean it! The 2005 BBC’s Shakespeare Retold version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is definitely boisterous, beautiful, and extremely charming. I loved it!

This is a completely modern, up-to-date version using modern English (with a bit of an accent). I loved everything about it. The story is set in a modern “holiday park”… a beautiful resort with nice cabins in the woods. I’d like to vacation there! The actors are all really good. The writing is excellent. The tone is just right. I can’t say enough about this version.

The music is great—modern and right on the money. They play “Strangers in the Night” during all the crazy goings-on in the forest, “Love Potion Number 9” while Puck is applying the love potion. All the music is really good.

I love the fairies. Puck (played by Dean Lennox Kelly) is a scruffy grunge rocker type. He’s very low-key and he breaks the fourth wall all the time, talking directly to the camera to clue us in. It works very well for me. The Oberon/Titania relationship (played by Lennie James and Sharon Small) is good. Oberon’s trick on Titania is well done, and when he sees the result, he seems genuinely remorseful and makes it right. And the scene of Titania’s love nest with Bottom (Johnny Vegas) is really, really funny.

The story follows Shakespeare very closely. The love quadrangle between Hermia, Zander, James Demetrius and Helena is essentially Shakespearean. The main plot difference for me is with the Hippolyta/Theseus characters (Polly and Theo—Hermia’s parents in this version, played by Bill Paterson and Imelda Staunton). I thought their midlife relationship reevaluation was interesting. Also, Theo has conversations with Oberon who appears to him periodically to give him love advice, and apparently has done so in the past. I liked this addition to the story. And Oberon’s final advice to Theo seems a good antidote to the love-craziness going on all around in the woods: “Just enjoy what you’ve got, Theo. Just enjoy what you’ve got.”

This one’s a winner. It would be an excellent and very accessible intro to the story for high schoolers. It’s available on Netflix, both streaming and on DVD. Get it!

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BBC = Boisterous, Beautiful, Charming

March 27, 2010 at 10:18 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

I knew that Romeo and Juliet was probably the low ebb of the BBC Television Shakespeare series, so I am happy to report that their version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is much better.

It is not fantastic, but it’s fun to watch and the acting is all decent. Helen Mirren is sensual and luminous as Titania. The “hempen homespuns” are bumbling, but funny. Helena (Cherith Mellor) is fun to watch as her character has to deal with the changes in her friends brought on by the fairy love juice.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this version at all. The film starts very slowly. The “Athenians” are in what appears to be an 18th century English home with a big clock ticking in the background. The four Athenian youngsters are lined up at a table as Hermia’s father tells her she must marry Demetrius and give up Lysander. Helena’s character seems so bumbling and prunish at first. I just wasn’t sure I was going to get into it.

But enter the fairy world and things started moving along nicely. The story, with all its convolutions, is very easy to follow in this version. It’s clear who is in love with who at which moment and why.

So, I liked it all in all. And it can’t help but be funny, because the play itself is so silly with the Athenians falling in and out of love and the fairies playing tricks.

HOWEVER. And it’s a big however. This version creates a dark mood, especially in the fairy kingdom. Puck is creepy and Oberon is mean-spirited. There’s a darkness hanging over the whole production that seems off to me. Again, I haven’t re-read the text yet, but my memories of this play are all lightness, magic, and comedy. That’s not the tone here. Still, I enjoyed watching this and I’m looking forward to seeing more film versions.

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The Madness of Love

March 26, 2010 at 9:47 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

Ahh, that crazy midsummer night. This time around, I’m using the BBC Shakespeare: The Animated Tales version as my introduction to the play. I have not yet re-read the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (it’s been 20+ years since I last read it) so I cannot comment on how closely this version follows the text. I’m assuming that like the Romeo and Juliet episode, it’s pretty true to Shakespeare, just condensed.

A fair amount of the convolutions here are explained by a narrator. This helps set the stage and simplifies much of the action. In fact, it is so simple that my preschooler was spellbound. He loved this cartoon, and was literally watching silently for the entire half hour until the very last minute when he asked if it was almost over (it was!). This is a very colorful cel-animated cartoon. Extremely watchable for any age.

I enjoyed it very much. I was giggling through much of it. The animation is very funny and I feel like it focuses more on the humorous aspects of the play than the magical. Magic is a huge part of the plot, but in this version, it’s all quite farcical rather than mystical. There is a sort of 1960s flower power feel to the fairies and magical aspects. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s cute, yet not too cutesy.

The disk with A Midsummer Night’s Dream also has The Tempest and As You Like It. I did not watch them. This series of 12 animated, condensed plays is available on Netflix, so I plan to just get the disks again as I proceed through the other plays. Onward through the fog!

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Romeo and Juliet, Abridged… and Animated!

March 21, 2010 at 10:34 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

I have a secret. When my son brings me another Scooby story to read at bedtime and I know it would take me 10 or 15 minutes and I don’t want to spend that much time on it… I have a secret method for shortening it. I read the first sentence on every page and then a random sentence here or there. The story goes much faster and the kids hardly ever notice. They’re more interested in looking at the pictures anyway. They still get the gist of the story and everyone’s happy.

The BBC basically did this with their series Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. I’m sure they were a bit more selective and careful about which lines they kept, but they take each play and condense it to a half hour. They use Shakespeare’s language along with a narrator who sets the scene, introduces characters, clarifies action, etc. They’re well done.

I thought the animation was interesting. It’s kind of artsy and some of the characters are a bit odd-looking (for example, the upper part of the nurse’s face is brown, but the lower part is light). But this didn’t detract at all from the film. 

I would not recommend this version of Romeo and Juliet for very young children. My kids were not interested at all. My preschooler left the room immediately. My second grader stayed for about five minutes before saying he was done. The language was the barrier, I think. Note (especially if you show it to small kids) a bit more (animated) nudity during Romeo and Juliet’s night of bliss scene than you might expect in a cartoon.

The disk with Romeo and Juliet also has Othello and The Winter’s Tale. I was talking on the phone when the other two episodes were playing, but all seemed very good. Romeo and Juliet and Othello are cel animation and The Winter’s Tale is stop-action puppetry.

I believe these Animated Tales (there are twelve plays and they are available on Netflix) would be wonderful to use with high school age kids… maybe middle school, too. They would be really good for giving an introduction to a play. I may even watch them first as I move on through the plays. A half hour of easy viewing and you definitely get a solid feel for the plot, in Shakespeare’s words (another secret… I turn on the English subtitles because I get more out of the dialog when I read along).

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