10 April 2016

A Shakespeare Trio

A Shakespeare Trio!
by Kristin Battestella

Let's celebrate The Bard with these three elusive and somewhat unusual adaptations brimming with big names, bizzarro, and beaches. Huzzah!

Macbeth – Pre-007 Sean Connery leads this black and white 1961 Canadian television production – which looks like some seriously low budget mid century television indeed thanks to poor, VHS caliber video and up close camera work that is so tight, its missing its own blocking and practically cutting off the picture. The costumes are almost non-existent, the swords look like toys, and the empty stone sets are more bad sci-fi than Billy. There's a lot of standing around doing nothing, too, but fortunately the foreground silhouettes, gray shadows, and ballet-esque witches invoke a surreal feeling alongside ominous smoke, thunder, and trumpets. The old speakeths are well spoken, delivered firmly as the brisk eighty minutes gets right to the prophecies, treasonous plots, murderous frenzy, and guilty consequences. Although jealous voiceovers and ambitious internal monologues initially belie Macbeth's calm exterior, it's a pity there are precious few action moments and no zesty, angry asides to match Connery's gruff. Ironically, the abstract space accents Lady Macbeth's warped soliloquies, and stage dame Zoe Caldwell looks her conniving, condescending part – Mrs. MacB's twisted, timeless words are enough to carry her easily manipulated husband to crime and trump the old production values. Sleepwalking, revenge, turn about fair play – this packs in a lot despite most of the action happening offscreen. Zooms and music do escalate the shocks for the Macduff killings, and the sword fight finale is well played, however, one must be familiar with the play before this viewing. I do wish Connery had a proper film chance at The Scottish Play, and while the shoddy video makes this classroom tough, comparing specific scenes could be a fun study. It's not quite a filmed play, however, with such little attention to the film design, nothing remains but dialogue and performance to tell the story – and I kind of like it that way.

Othello – It's black and white and only an hour and a half, but writer, director, producer, and star Orson Welles puts his all into this 1952 opus. The ominous opening reveals the play's fatal ending with haunting funerary, chanting, silhouettes, and medieval hoods in a march of the damned complete with sacrificial Cross motifs. Venice feelings and international locales add mood for this fast moving, simplified adaptation, too. However, no one is introduced and the dialogue is difficult without subtitles – making this edition very confusing for one unfamiliar with the always fine tragedy at hand. Although the narration, head hopping, and messy structuring is understandable due to the long gestating, embattled production, the intercut up close shots have a spliced together tone. Distant outdoor filming, big battle action, and artistic scene setters also try too hard and detract from the plot. This Iago is a mustache twisting villain – his opportunistic orchestration lost amid the busy scenes or existing only to dupe a kindly, messianic Moor whose one weakness is a woman in white. Of course, if Welles could have done this as a one man show, he probably would have, and his egotistical photography creates more unevenness. Othello's scenes are the best because Welles makes them so with slower shots and stewing confrontations. From misunderstood to ogre with crazy in between, this is a performance booming in stature. However, a white star playing the traditionally black Moor is certainly taboo for viewers today – and Welles does so in odd, sweaty, swarthy makeup. Such full of itself blinders overshadows an intriguing vision caught behind the noir forties yet ahead of the avante garde sixties. Fortunately, the pace steamrolls thanks to a no good handkerchief, and considering all the behind the scenes troubles, it's amazing this is such watchable, powerful stuff. No, this isn't perfect, and the changes may bother Shakespeare purists, but this heavy little picture is worth a look. 

The Tempest – Helen Mirren (The Queen) leads writer and director Julie Taymor's (Titus) 2010 role reversal alongside Alan Cumming (X2), Chris Cooper (American Beauty), David Strathairn (Goodnight, and Good Luck), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything). Sorcery and supernatural storms invoke an in limbo, fantasy tone – making the hefty exposition easier old speaketh fanciful – while brief flashbacks to Milan have a dreamy, otherworldly quality to match. Small people live large in orchestrating flawed plans to entertain themselves amid an almost steampunk styled island lair and bleak, barren settings. Silent film German Expressionism photography captures the isolated, moody Hawaii beaches and airy forests as ships in peril, crashing waves, and seaside winds accent the surreal. However, the Ariel special effects montages can feel cheesy or redundant – Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) need not be separated from the rest of the cast with post production spectacle in this otherwise outdoor play presentation. Fortunately, the blu-ray release has an hour long behind the scenes documentary, commentary with the cast and crew, and rehearsal footage explaining how and why they made such choices. Subtle reflections, nymph music, and the earthy, androgynous Ariel design are better, and the harpy scene provides some wild turnabout action. Although young audiences may like the near slapstick silly and drunken moments, even as a jester Russell Brand (Despicable Me) feels out of place with an obnoxious missing the mark sidetracking the first hour. The innate Shakespeare parallels can also feel uneven when straying from the stronger cast and self aware confrontations. The youthful romance, however, is more appealing to modern viewers thanks to players waxing on if they are dreaming or awake in a play within a play purgatory. Likewise, the Prospera switch adds mother/daughter intrigue to strengthen the sympathetic sorceress with a bad wrap theme. Maybe we don't see Mirren much and it is obvious this is such a strong female character because the role is really written for a man, but our Dame commands the masculine ruthless and fiery action well. Everyone here plots for their own gain, yet each finds his guilt, pity, or comeuppance in a fine finale that trades power for compassion. One may not always agree with Taymor's storytelling decisions, however, I wish she directed more simply because this industry needs visionary women. Several scenes here are ripe for classroom comparisons and discussions, and in this era where most films look the same, Shakespearean fans seeking something different need look no further.

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