Shakespeare Lives in Film

Czym jest projekt Shakespeare Lives in Film?

W styczniu 2016 roku British Film Institute (BFI) zainaugurował wielkie szekspirowskie święto filmowe. W ramach projektu zobaczymy filmy, które powstawały od 1899 roku do dziś – wszystkie są adaptacjami dzieł Shakespeare'a lub były nimi inspirowane. 

Filmy będą pokazywane w kinach na całym świecie, a także online. 

Projekt zostanie zaprezentowany w ramach Olimpiady Teatralnej we Wrocławiu, która odbędzie się w dniach 14 października-14 listopada 2016. Program towarzyszącego Olimpiadzie przeglądu filmowego jest dostępny na stronie Kina Nowe Horyzonty. Wydarzenie jest organizowane wspólnie ze Stowarzyszeniem Nowe Horyzonty

Poniżej prezentujemy artykuły na temat wybranych filmów przeglądu. Autorem wszystkich tekstów jest Ian Haydn Smith, krytyk filmowy, redaktor magazynów BFI FILMMAKERS MAGAZINE i CURZON MAGAZINE (teksty w języku angielskim).

Shakespeare on Film

William Shakespeare died 379 years before the Lumière brothers premiered their first film to a stunned Paris audience in December 1895. Yet on IMDB, the playwright’s name is associated with over 1000 feature films. Only Walt Disney’s credit list comes close. From silent cinema through to the age of the modern blockbuster, Shakespeare’s influence is wide and wonderfully varied. Adaptations run the gamut, from straightforward approaches to his text to fabulously imagined variations on a theme or plot. His plays have been updated to reflect on modern times, even looking forward to future worlds and distant planets, as well as taking place in the time Shakespeare envisaged them. And with the commemoration of 400 years since his death and the global Shakespeare Lives festival unfolding over the course of this year, his work, the themes he explored and moral conundrums he engaged with remain relevant, even chillingly prescient.

The traditional cinematic Shakespeare adaptation has come a long way since the short films made at the beginning of the 20th century, which recreated famous scenes. (Excerpts of which can be seen in a special programme showing on the Market Square screen on 24 July.) The most famous versions of his plays, by Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Franco Zeffirelli and more recently Kenneth Branagh, have resulted in a canon of prized adaptations that not only draw out the poetic brilliance of Shakespeare’s text, they are often a reflection of the times in which they were made. Olivier’s Henry V (1944), a propagandist work made to beef up morale in the fight against the Nazis, offers a deeply patriotic portrait of war. By contrast, Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of the same play views war as a hellish, inhumane environment in which no side is left unscarred. No less brutal is Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), screening at this festival. It may have been produced by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Productions, but there’s no Hollywood glamour on display. It’s a grim and powerful take on Shakespeare’s short, kinetic tragedy. It’s impossible not to watch it without thinking about the turbulence of that period – Vietnam was still raging, the Manson gang had killed Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate in a massacre, and the world felt as though it was balanced on the precipice of chaos. 

Branagh’s second Shakespeare adaptation couldn’t have been more different from his Henry V or Polanski’s MacbethMuch Ado About Nothing’s (1993) inclusion in this festival’s Shakespeare Lives retrospective shows just how varied a traditional adaptation can be. It’s a resplendent, Tuscany-set comedy, whose darker edges remain visible but are played out with panache by Branagh and his cast, never letting them eclipse the carnivalesque atmosphere of the production.  

Theatre of Blood (1973) exists in the ‘inspired by’ strand of films screening in the festival. It employs scenes and lines from Shakespeare’s plays in order to power the narrative, about an actor taking revenge on the critics responsible for his downfall. Vincent Price, who always wanted to be a Shakespearean actor, relishes the central role, delivering some of the most famous lines with aplomb, whilst despatching each critic in the style of a death scene from many of the plays. Wickedly funny, it’s a perfect Midnight Madness screening.

Derek Jarman has long been a favourite of New Horizons and his two Shakespearean entries are both a welcome addition to the retrospective and highlight his genius as a visual stylist, poet and laureate of the dispossessed. His The Tempest (1979) infuses his interest in the punk scene of the late 1970s with an Avant Garde sensibility. But it’s the moments of tenderness that shine through, nowhere more so than jazz baroness Elizabeth Welch’s stunning cabaret-style rendering of ‘Stormy Weather’. 

 If there’s a dreaminess to that film, it’s a hazy echo compared to the ethereal textures of The Angelic Conversation (1985). Set to sonnets read by Judi Dench, the film is a homoerotic reverie of images and celluloid collages that mesh into one single, phantasmogoric tone poem. Imagine Jean Genet’s prison diaries played out in Elizabethan verse. The film may be a long way from what Shakespeare envisaged when he wrote the sonnets, but it shows how cinema, over the course of 120 years, has produced an incredible body of work that illuminates, explores, examines, adapts, reinterprets and celebrates the brilliance of William Shakespeare.

Death by Shakespeare: Theatre of Blood

Death by Shakespeare: Theatre of Blood

There’s a strong likelihood that someone who claims they have never seen a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play will have watched one without realising it. Never seen The Taming of the Shrew? What about the musical Kiss Me Kate (1953) or high-school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Not seen The Tempest? What about 1950s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956). Fans of Kurosawa might watch Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) not realising that they were thinly disguised takes on Macbeth and King Lear. And what about Romeo and Juliet? There’s West Side Story (1961), Abel Ferrara’s China Girl (1987), the schlocky exploitationer Tromeo & Juliet (1996) and, for kids, the animated movie Gnomeo & Juliet (2011).

There is a whole sub-genre of films ‘inspired by’ the plays of William Shakespeare. But none adopt such an unruly, devil-may-care attitude in plundering Shakespeare’s text than Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood (1973). It has the look of a classic Hammer horror movie – a staple genre film from the British studio that made its name by scaring the bejesus out of audiences. But its dark humour and twisted application of classic texts makes it unique.

Vincent Price plays the grandly named Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, an actor whose opinion of himself is greater than that of any his critics. After a humiliating experience at an awards ceremony, Lionheart attempts suicide but is saved by vagrants and from there hatches his revenge. The critics who mauled him will suffer death, but each murder will mirror one from a Shakespeare play. 

Price was a far better actor than many of the film roles he is remembered for. He started out with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre company in London before making his presence felt in a series of noir thrillers that included Otto Preminger’s classic 1944 drama Laura. But in the 1950s he became associated with horror, where he remained for most of his career. A highpoint was the series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations produced by Roger Corman, along with the final film by British director Michael Reeves, Witchfinder General (1968). 

A new generation re-discovered him in the 1980s when he provided the Monster Rap for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the director Tim Burton, a long-time fan who had him narrate an 1982 short Vincent, gave him one of his last roles, as the benevolent inventor in Edward Scissorhands (1990).

But Price had always wanted to perform Shakespeare and Theatre of Blood gave him the chance. The film is littered with lines and segments of speeches, and Price revels in them. He was one of the great horror stars, but as this film shows, he was a skilled actor – versatile and just as capable of high drama and self-deprecating archness as he was malevolence and threat.


Silent Shakespeare: Play On!

Silent Shakespeare: Play On!

Of the 1,168 writing credits William Shakespeare receives on IMDB, over 100 are for films made before sound became an integral part of cinema. It seems odd that a writer renowned for the richness and complexity of his dialogue should be employed as source material for a form entirely unsuited at that time to fully engaging with his texts. However, the adaptation of scenes from his plays were hugely popular.

The first play to be adapted, in 1899, was one that is rarely performed today. This version of King John, which was written around the same time as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream and The Merchant of Venice, featured the great Victorian stage actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It was actually used as an advertisement for the stage production he was appearing in. A single image only remains from that film, but countless other silent Shakespeare films have survived, many of which are featured in Play On!, a compendium of excerpts screening on the Market Square. 

The British Institute picked scenes from 24 adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies and historical plays for the film. They include one of the first screen appearances by legendary Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud, in a production of Romeo and Juliet. Though most of the films were shot in studios, there are a few exceptions, most notably a production of The Merchant of Venice that was actually shot in the Italian city. Elsewhere, a storm rages as King Lear goes insane, a magical woods allows for some early visual effects in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the murder of Duncan is presented in a wildly declamatory style in a scene from Macbeth.

The film is accompanied by music composed and performed by the musicians of London’s Globe Theatre. Drawn together by theme, these films offer a fascinating portrait of how Shakespeare was presented in the early 20th century. 


Film Poetics: The Angelic Conversation, The Tempest

Film Poetics

Derek Jarman had incurred the wrath of the British establishment by the time he embarked on the first of two Shakespeare adaptations, both of which are screening as part of the British Council sponsored Shakespeare Lives retrospective at New Horizons.

After a series of dazzling shorts, as well as his stunning set designs for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), Jarman directed two provocative features back-to-back. 1976’s Sebastiane presented the story of one man’s Christian beliefs and carnal desires through a homo-erotic prism, outraging the Church of England, conservatives across the UK and making the director the art world’s Public Enemy No. 1. Two years later, he directed one of the great punk films, Jubilee (1978). All anger and attitude, it presented Britain as an apocalyptic landscape – one unrecognisable to Queen Elizabeth I, who has been transported through time to it. By the time he came to make The Tempest (1979), no other director attracted so much ire and acclaim.

The surprise – Jarman’s entire career is one of surprises, both shocking and pleasant – with The Tempest is that for all the structural changes the director makes to the play, the adaptation remains a glorious celebration of Shakespeare’s rich language. It’s no surprise that the film is visually intoxicating. Set mostly in and around an English manor house, Jarman creates a fabulous world inhabited by Heathcote William’s foppish Prospero. There’s an additional wedding scene towards the end, which is forgivable as it allows Elizabeth Welch to enter in grand style as a Goddess and, surrounded by sailors who resemble models from a Pierre et Gilles portrait, performs a stunning rendition of the jazz standard ‘Stormy Weather. Best of all is Toyah Wilcox. The punk singer, who dominated Jubilee, playing an aggressive Miranda. She’s all attitude and posturing – a marked shift from the vacuous character that appears in most productions of the play.

The Angelic Conversation (1985) precedes Jarman’s most critically acclaimed run series of films, which includes Caravaggio (1986), the radical The Last of England (1987), the elegiac War Requiem (1989), The Garden (1990) and Edward II (1991). He would soon lose his sight as a result of the onset of AIDS, not that anyone would guess when watching the resplendence of Wittgenstein and Blue (both 1993).

The film is a series of slow-moving images, a combination of ethereal landscapes and homo-erotic sequences, set to Judi Dench’s reading of 14 sonnets. The director described it as, “a dream world, a world of magic and ritual, yet there are images there of the burning cars and radar systems, which remind you there is a price to be paid in order to gain this dream in the face of a world of violence.”

The sonnets are read out of order, taking on a different narrative structure to the one created by Shakespeare, although all are from the first 126 sonnets, which are addressed to a man. The music was composed by the experimental band Coil, with additional music taken from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes

The film is an exquisite rumination on emotional love and physical desire. As such, it’s probably more of a companion piece with Peter Greenaway’s equally experimental Prospero’s Books (1991) than Jarman’s own take on The Tempest. But together with that film, The Angelic Conversation highlights what a singular talent Jarman was.

Shakespeare in Italy: Much Ado About Nothing


The Italian landscape has provided a backdrop to 13 of Shakespeare’s plays: ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘Titus Andronicus’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Othello’, ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Coriolanus’, ‘The Winter's Tale’ and ‘Cymbeline’. They run the course of the country’s history, span its length and breadth – from coastline to cities and rural regions – and feature some of the playwright’s most memorable characters. There are tragedies, comedies and histories and they encompass the spectrum of human emotions. 

Of all these plays, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is perhaps the breeziest. And yet it manages to plumb the depths of our darker side, exploring the destructive nature of jealousy and examining the boundaries of trust, between men and the two sexes. 

There have been a number of film adaptations. The most recent, a small-scale black and white drama from 2011, was shot by Joss Whedon in and around his LA home, between principle photography and post-production on his Avengers Assemble blockbuster. As fun as that film is, it still pales against Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Tuscany-set version.

Branagh plays Benedict, with Emma Thompson as Beatrice. They’re a perfect match on the screen. Their relationship is initially played for laughs, then takes on a serious tone, before returning to comedy and romance at the end. Their trials and tribulations reflect the course of the plot, which finds Keanu Reeve’s scheming Don John, the brother of Denzel Washington’s Prince of Aragon, planning to destroy the wedding between Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale) by impugning the young bride’s virtue.

Branagh’s second Shakespeare adaptation is a startling change in tone from Henry V. Along with his 1997 version of Hamlet (1997), it is one of his best films. The more overt comedy, particularly Michael Keaton’s Dogberry – coming across like a renaissance Beetlejuice – works less well, but the jovial atmosphere overcomes any minor failings. 

If the film is one of the more traditional Shakespearian adaptations, all the better to enjoy the richness of the play’s dialogue. The main players are excellent (only Keanu Reeves strikes an odd note – he is woefully miscast and out of his depth), but the real pleasure lies in watching Branagh and Thompson duke it out with words. An extraordinary Shakespearean actor, Branagh’s ability to shift between comedy and drama is compelling to watch, while few people can do waspishness quite as deftly as Thompson. If ever there was the perfect summer Shakespeare film, this is it.

A Bloody Tragedy: Macbeth

A Bloody Tragedy

In his seminal 1939 study ‘Shakespeare’, the American academic and critic Mark Van Doren described ‘Macbeth’ as the “rapidest of tragedies,” which “suggests whirlwinds rather than glaciers, and in fact that terror rather than pity is the mode of the accompanying music”. It was the last of his four great tragedies, after ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’ and ‘King Lear’. It is one of his shortest plays and barrels along, with all cylinders firing, as it tells of the rise and fall of the ruthless Scottish nobleman. With a plot perfect for cinematic treatment, it’s no surprise that it has proven popular with filmmakers.

Before Roman Polanski’s brutal and bleak 1971 adaptation, there had already been a number of notable productions. In 1916, D.W. Griffith produced a version starring the great stage actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It’s director John Emerson may not have gone on to great things but the assistant director was Erich von Stroheim, who would go on to direct Greed (1924) and star in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). The cinematographer was Victor Fleming who in one year alone, 1939, directed The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. And the text for the film was written by Anita Loos, who would adapt her own novel for Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Orson Welles directed a version of the play in 1948, making the most of a small budget. (He would fare better in 1952 with his production of Othello.) Then there’s the film noir Joe Macbeth (1955) setting the play amongst gangsters and Akira Kurosawa’s masterful Throne of Blood (1957), arguably the greatest cinematic take on the tragedy.

More recently, the Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj began a trilogy of Shakespeare adaptations with Maqbool (2003), setting the action in the Mumbai underworld. And then in 2015 Justin Kurzel gave us a more sympathetic take with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as a now grieving, battle-scarred couple.

Polanski’s version is a product of its times. It was made amidst the chaos of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Polanski had just made two very different horror films – the parodic The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and far more disturbing Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Both were a marked departure from his earlier, taut thrillers Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). The war in Vietnam had been raging for almost a decade. There was civil unrest in most Western countries. And then, in 1969, Polanski’s wife, the actor Sharon Tate, and four others were massacred by the Manson gang. It is hard not to watch Macbeth without thinking about all these elements.

The film is set in the time Shakespeare wrote it. Polanski and co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan chose to have much of the dialogue as voiceover, adding significantly to both the realism and tension. There were a few other changes. The character of Ross is given more screen time, but no more dialogue, transforming him into a turncoat who will always end up on the winning side. And Donalbain’s actions at the end of the film suggest that no story is ever over – it merely begins again. The end suggests – in keeping with the times – that history is destined to repeat itself and we never really learn from our mistakes.

Unlike so many of the other characters Shakespeare created, Macbeth is an irredeemable soul. His desires are selfish and self-serving, and his greed consumes him. As Mark van Doren noted, “Macbeth has surrendered his soul before the play begins. When we first see him he is already invaded by fears which are to render him vicious and which are finally to make him abominable.” Perhaps that’s why we find him such a compelling screen presence.