Shakespeare has received a writing credit on over one thousand films to date; but only around fifty of these constitute full screen adaptations of his plays. Compare this with the fact that there are, on average, more than four hundred theatrical productions of Shakespeare plays worldwide every year, and his cinema presence appears relatively marginal. This disparity is largely the product of a clash of media. The name “Shakespeare” sells, but his plays were written for the spontaneity and intimacy of live theatre, for present, listening audiences who could laugh, applaud, sympathise, heckle, conspire. They were written, moreover, for a theatre which relied very little on realistic scenery, and which frequently appealed to its audience to imagine those spectacles which couldn’t be staged. How are such lines as “think when we talk of horses, that you see them” (Henry V, “Prologue”) meant to work on screen? We don’t go to the cinema to imagine horses, or battles, or ships; we go to see them.
Yet despite these challenges of translation, Shakespeare’s plays have enjoyed some enormous screen successes. At their best, such adaptations have not only made the plays accessible to different and wider audiences, but have also uncovered new, exciting readings of well-worn stage material. In my Ertegun film series, “Shakespeare on Screen”, I wanted to bring together four of my favourite screen adaptations of Shakespeare. I tried to showcase a variety of approaches: the series included one radically modernised box-office hit, one tragedy filmed in translation, one acclaimed stage production reimagined for the screen, and one relatively traditional take on Shakespearean comedy. Each week, I also began with a clip from the archives. We watched the earliest film fragment of a Shakespeare play in existence, from an 1899 production of King John, as well as a 10-minute silent film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909), the Prologue to Laurence Olivier’s seminal Henry V (1944), and some original pronunciation Shakespeare.
The main features were Baz Lurhmann’s characteristically extravagant 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, Grigori Kozintsev’s bleak and breath-taking Russian adaptation of King Lear (1971), Gregory Doran’s claustrophobic and unsettling reimagining of his critically acclaimed stage version of Macbeth (2003), and Kenneth Branagh’s joyfully exuberant Much Ado About Nothing (1993).
It was wonderful to be able to share and discuss these films with my Ertegun colleagues. Some of the conversations prompted by the screenings – such as a discussion of whether the original Shakespearean language enhances or detracts from Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet – have encouraged me to think about the opportunities and challenges of bringing Shakespeare to the screen in a different way. And we even had our own encounter with the curse of “The Scottish Play”, when the DVD of Doran’s Macbeth started to glitch around half-way through the screening, and spookily continued glitching, even once the DVD had been removed…!
Week 5: Wednesday 13th February: Romeo + Juliet (Baz Lurhmann, 1996)
Baz Lurhmann’s characteristically extravagant Romeo + Juliet is the highest-grossing screen adaptation of a Shakespeare play ever produced; it remains more popular than rom-com modernisations 10 Things I Hate About You (1999, based on The Taming of the Shrew) and She’s the Man (2006, based on Twelfth Night), though it might still have some way to go before it rivals Walt Disney’s Hamlet with lions. Lurhmann once described Shakespeare as a “relentless entertainer”, and this is clearly the spirit in which he directed his film. This vibrant, energetic, over-the-top adaptation transfers the play’s “two hours’ traffic” from “fair Verona” to Verona Beach, a dusty, sun-bleached metropolis ruled by warring business empires. The play’s swords and torches are exchanged for guns, fireworks and neon lights, but much of the sixteenth-century script is retained, with Lurhmann preferring to cut and re-order rather than rewrite. Romeo + Juliet also boasts an exceptional soundtrack and some gorgeously starry-eyed performances from Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, who were just seventeen and twenty-one respectively at the time of filming. Look out for playful intertextual references like a shop called “The Merchant of Verona Beach” and a Cleopatra fancy dress costume.
Week 6: Wednesday 20th February: King Lear /Король Лир, (Grigori Kozintsev, 1971)
This week we exchanged bright colour for monochrome, Des’ree for Dmitri Shostakovich, teenage angst for old-age folly. Critics once thought of King Lear as unstageable, and with its messy plot and spatial indeterminacy, it should be unfilmable too; yet Kozintsev’s adaptation makes Lear seem as though it was written for the screen. The cinematography is breath-taking and bleak, dominated by vast, cracked and desolate landscapes which vividly capture the play’s looming consciousness of humankind’s insignificance. The scale afforded by cinema allows Kozintsev to populate his Lear with hundreds of the “poor naked wretches” apostrophised by the eponymous king during the storm. In doing so, he forces his audiences to confront a question all too easily overlooked in the theatre: what happens to a country’s citizens when the land is arbitrarily divided into three? Just as it is the last great role undertaken by many actors, so King Lear was the final directorial project of Grigori Kozintsev; he had spent years studying and researching Shakespearean drama in preparation, and his immense sensitivity to the playtext is more than evident in this adaptation.
Week 7: Wednesday 27th February: Macbeth, (Gregory Doran, 2003)
This week’s film is based not only on a play, but on one specific theatrical production. Directed by Gregory Doran, the RSC’s 1999 production of “the Scottish play” was hailed by critics as the best Macbeth in decades. Following a hugely successful season at Stratford’s Swan Theatre, as well as a run in London and a tour abroad, the production was adapted for the screen, filmed on location at London’s Roundhouse with all of its original cast. While I was not fortunate enough to see this Macbeth live, the film captures all of the claustrophobic intensity described by theatre critics through its shaky, documentary-style camera work, prevailing darkness and uncomfortable facial close-ups. Antony Sher and Harriet Walters give peerless performances as the murderous married couple: Sher is masterful in his transition from burgeoning ambition to insomniac neurosis, while Walters is a chillingly indomitable Lady Macbeth. Director Gregory Doran described Macbeth as “the most filmic of Shakespeare’s plays with its short, quick-fire scenes and its hurtling, dynamic momentum”. But no Hollywood version of the play (I’m thinking Polanski, 1971, and Kurzel, 2015) does so good a job of realising this as Doran’s small-budget film.
Week 8: Wednesday 6th March: Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, 1993)
We ended the term with the sunlit whimsy of Much Ado About Nothing, adapted and directed by – and, yes, starring – Kenneth Branagh. Filmed entirely at a villa in Tuscany, this film is gorgeous to look at, full of picnics and gardens and splashing in fountains. Some of its performances leave a little to be desired: Michael Keaton is bizarre as the often-unfunny Dogberry, while Keanu Reaves provides an almost entertainingly wooden Don John. But Emma Thompson is exceptional as Beatrice, witty, acerbic, yet warm, and Branagh’s Benedick is delightfully, exuberantly, silly. This is pure, unadulterated fun, all wrapped up with a Shakespearean jig – and in week 8 of Hilary, why not?!
 Russell Jackson, “Introduction: Shakespeare, films and the marketplace”, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, ed. Russell Jackson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2.