Monday, June 16, 2008

Shakespeare Retold

We rented Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It a while back, and one of the previews on the DVD was for a BBC series called Shakespeare Retold, a television production featuring four of Shakespeare's plays (Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night's Dream) 'rewritten' by modern playwrights. The cast looked fabulous, with all kinds of UK stalwarts from Shirley Henderson to Imelda Staunton to Rupert Sewell to Bill Paterson to the lovely Mr Tumnus James McAvoy, and the premise seemed intriguing enough to make me completely dismiss As You Like It, which wasn't very good anyways. I seem to remember demanding that we needed to see it immediately, and then, in my usual way, forgetting about it equally immediately. Fortunately Richard (aka the man with a memory like an elephant) did not forget, and several weeks later a little Amazon package graced his backpack. Handy having a Shakespearean scholar in the house.

We started with Much Ado. It's hard for me not to think of Emma Thompson when I think of this play, because she was so luminous (not to mention tanned) and snappy as Beatrice, but we were charmed, although I had some difficulty not thinking about David Tennant whenever Billie Piper came on the screen (playing Hero). It was much like Branagh's Much Ado: sharp, witty, and well-cast, curious endings aside (this is what you might call a revisionist rewrite).

From there we moved onto The Taming of the Shrew, which is a perfect feast for the fiesty. Shirley Henderson (whom you might recognize from sitting through all those Harry Potter movies - she plays Moaning Myrtle) and Rupert Sewell go at it for nearly 90 minutes - 90 startlingly charming minutes. Rupert totters and preens, Shirley shreds the scenery, and they swing at each other a good deal. Even the supporting cast commands your attention, and no, I am not talking about that cute Italian boy. It was like watching an vaguely angry, twisted, but weirdly romantic Richard Curtis-type film, now that I think of it: there were even the same future montage snippets to tell you how happily they lived afterwards (presumably fighting like cats all the while).

We dithered a bit over Macbeth, and while I love James McAvoy I can't say I thought this was one was very successful, but that may have been because a friend of ours had just been visiting from England and spent a lot of time telling us about some live productions she'd seen, one of them being Macbeth. Patrick Stewart had played Macbeth; there had been taps gushing with blood, and it had all sounded horribly inventive and visual. Shakespeare Retold's Macbeth was horrible but not particularly inventive or visual. It was depressed and dark and hurtled towards an obvious conclusion, gripping you like grim death all the while.

Finally, A Midsummer Night's Dream: good cast, good performances, but some of the touches were slightly, err, experimental for my taste, if that's the right word. Puck, figured as a sort of smug aging hippie hanging about in trees, had a tincture that remedied everything in a rather facile fashion. I wanted more from him, really, and I never got it. I also never saw enough of Oberon and Titania, who were wonderful in a sort of rock-star chic way - all long swinging coats and frilly cuffs. But it was probably with Bottom and the musicians where most of the charm lay. They were silly, pathetic, and funny, in turns. Intriguing and inventive, though.

Inexplicable remark alert: Just in case you are wondering WHY everyone was laughing when Bottom made his "I'm the only gay in the village!" remark, well, get thee hence to an episode of Little Britain. There is a skit with this very remark in it, sprinkled around so liberally that you'll never forget it, ever.

In fact, the whole series was intriguing and inventive. It's been a while since I've been so won over by something in the DVD line. The last time was when we rented Rome, I think, and we watched the entire first season in about 5 days. Captivating. Just thinking about it gives me shivers. The second season wasn't quite as shocking or powerful on the sense, but still better than most of the dreck made into movies these days (don't hold back, Sheila, tell us how you really feel!).

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