Shakespeare gets part three entirely to himself.
This star-studded, gloriously produced version of Hamlet, starring Kenneth Branagh among others, was my first real foray into Shakespeare. Sure, we’d read Romeo and Juliet in school, but it’s hard to fall in love with a play that’s being read aloud in a classroom by a bunch of bored fifteen year-olds. Enter Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Judie Dench, Jack Lemon, Billy Crystal, and pretty much everyone else on stage or screen. The scale and drama of this production made me fall in love with Shakespeare. It didn’t bother me that the script sounded funny at times and tended to dance around the subject, where a modern on would get right to the point. There were all sorts of jokes and references I didn’t get at sixteen, but that didn’t matter.
Shakespeare was awesome. And relevant. And full of gorgeous poetry. Kenneth Branagh got me hooked on Hamlet, and I’ve seen several versions since then, including one starring David Tennant, the National Theater’s production starring Benedict Cumberbatch, a terrible version starting Ethan Hawke, and one or two others I can’t remember at the moment.
The full version of Branagh’s Hamlet is something like three and a half hours long or longer, so it’s probably not something you’ll plop down on the couch to watch on a Friday night. Or maybe it will be. I suppose it depends on how much of a Shakespeare nerd you are. I’ve done it more than once.
The Tempest (2010)
The first time I saw a gender-bent version of Shakespeare was a local college’s production of The Tempest. I’m sure they had grand intentions about exploring the nature of gender in Shakespeare or something like that, but it ended up feeling like they didn’t have enough people show up for auditions, and so they cast the first bunch of people who happened to wander by.
Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren in the gender-bent role of Prospera is nothing like that terrible college production. Instead of exploring the father/daughter relationship between Prospero and Miranda, we see a very different (and almost more plausible under the circumstances) relationship between a mother and daughter. Prospera the mother has just as much desire to protect her daughter as a father would, but for very different reasons. A father might be reluctant to give up his daughter to marriage, and thus loose his child. A mother would be reluctant to see her daughter give up her independence for the sake of a man.
The movie was shot in a remote and barren part of Hawaii, and the landscape lends the play a frightening yet ethereal atmosphere heightened by the presence of Ben Whishaw’s ghostly Ariel and Djimon Hounsou’s raging Caliban.
When I visited Scotland in 2015, I spent most of my time there in the very region where MacBeth takes place, although I didn’t have a chance to visit Cawdor Castle. During one of my many train rides, I spent a good deal of time looking out the window and imagining the various battles and events from the books and novels I’d read about Scotland. With that trip freshly in my mind, watching MacBeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard made me want to get right back on the plane and go back to the Highlands.
This is not your grandma’s production of MacBeth. The battles are visceral and bloody, and shot so that time runs strangely through them. The witches appear and disappear out of the ever-present mists, and instead of being the naked old crones from previous films, they appear as a chorus of women from multiple generations- women you could spend a lifetime searching for, but never find unless they want to be found. MacBeth himself is portrayed as a skilled warrior suffering from PTSD, a situation that makes perfect sense when explained in the commentary, and Cotillard’s Lady MacBeth is far more than just the scheming, power hungry woman she’s often shown as. This Lady has just lost a child, and has spent her public life around court politics, and her private life dealing with MacBeth’s psychological ailments.
The Scottish landscape accentuates the bleakness of the tale, while the mists highlight the strangeness of the people and their way of life. MacBeth is an old, old story, and the culture has changed so much between then and now that it’s nearly foreign to us. Yet Fassbender, Cotillard, and the rest of this stellar cast are able to build a bridge between the strangeness of the characters’ ways and their essential humanity.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Shakespeare isn’t all gloom and doom. Sometimes he is effervescent and fun. I was excited to hear that Joss Whedon was doing a production of Much Ado About Nothing. The fact that it was filmed in his home, in black and white, with a cast made of up actors from his other projects was a side benefit. I laughed aloud in the theater, and I think I had a tear or two in my eye at certain points, and it was certainly worth the expense of seeing it in the indie theater in town (the only venue showing it).
I didn’t watch Angel, and so I wasn’t familiar with the relationship between Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof’s characters in the TV series. But the chemistry between the two was obvious from the beginning, even when they claimed to hate each other. Seeing Sean Maher as a villain was a fun change from his role as Simon on Firefly, and I whole-heartedly agree with Linda Holmes from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour: Nathan Fillion should spend the rest of his career playing bumbling police officers. His part was a highlight in a film filled with highlights.
Hamlet: Again! I’m lucky enough to live in a city with a theater that has showings of productions by the National Theater in London, and so I get to watch these amazing theatrical productions without having to get on a plane and fly for ten hours to get to England. One of the productions I saw in 2015 had Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Hamlet, and while Kenneth Branagh’s version edges it out as my favorite, it’s a close thing.
Coriolanus: This was another National Theater event I got to see at the local theater. It stars Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus, and is a play I was completely unfamiliar with going into it. I was gobsmacked by the end. The theater the play happened in is an old banana factory, and the staging was minimal- some chairs and a ladder on a concrete stage, if I remember correctly. What they could do with those chairs was amazing, though. Most of the actors played multiple characters and used different accents to portray the differing characters. That worked, too. I’m torn about seeing any other versions of this play. I like seeing different interpretations, but would they live up to the quality of the National Theater’s production?