08 May 2016

A Shakespeare Trio, Twice!

A Shakespeare Trio, Twice!
by Kristin Battestella

My To Watch List has a long line of Shakespearean shows, so let's steamroll on with more all things upon Avon pomp, circumstance, and powerhouse performances!

Macbeth – This 2010 Peabody Award winning television rendition retains the Shakespearean text but transposes its two and a half hour Scottish Play to a surreal regime with stock footage of explosions and bombs setting the scene before eerie hospital gurneys, flat lining monitors, and freaky witches disguised as nurses. Underground bunker planning adds to the purgatory paranormal, and despite the unseen battle action, we recognize the fascist peril and prophecy gone awry. The kingsly talk doesn't seem out of place with mid-century guns thanks to fine delivery all around, and Sir Patrick Stewart looks the rugged soldier – a passed over thane ready to take credence in a supernatural hope too good to be true. His mustache and dress uniform hit home the cutthroat regime coup, and this desire for power becoming reality is more frightening and contemporary than we care to admit. Stewart faces the camera directly for his soliloquies, getting angry and closer to the lense as his political exterior consumes his guilty interior. He's getting ahead of himself in doing away with everybody, and the violence snowballs out of control. Lady in white Kate Fleetwood should be a forties dame beauty, however her harsh jawline and sharp cheekbones invoke a grim reaper facade, pairing her ill intentions with a psychotic yet sexy, alluring look. She's had plenty of time to plan her ascent while detesting her domestic duties – Mrs. MacB seems loving at first, but her blood red lips foreshadow her killer finishes and belittling cruelty. By contrast, her excellent sleepwalking scene strips this devil in a red dress down to a slip, no make up, and her true skeletal hollow. The audience cannot escape her foreground mental breakdown just as she cannot wash the blood from her hands. There are no major effects here, however period dressing, swift editing, and colorful lighting transitions provide cinematic flavor. Green sickly hues reflect mounting jealousy, and omen sound effects such as tolling bells, owls, and ravens create an eerie atmosphere for the hellish elevator traversing the titular up and down fates. Television parades, dictator banners, fancy fur hats, and glamorous red designs escalate the selling the soul downward spiral – using the sophistication of the era with dinner parties, period music, and record players as well as chanting and firing squads for wartime horrors. Upsetting Macduff killings add Anne Frank symbolism while noir photography accents the empty, darkening sets and increasingly tighter camerawork. Some may dislike the surreal intrusions or slow motion gory, but the source play is amoral and spooky, lending itself to such fascist horrors. The fitting bunker siege finale against the Macbeths looks not Bard, but like an action history drama – shrewdly keeping the parallels fresh in spite of this period setting on 400 year old material. Here the human drama, great performances, and bloody aftermath are done superbly with story, location, mood, and no need for hyperbole.

Richard III – Producer, director, and writer Laurence Olivier assembles an excellent, knights included, everybody who is Bard anybody ensemble featuring Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, and John Gielgud for this hefty 1955 adaptation costing a mere 6 mil. The effortless repertory proves how pleasantly period the Shakespearean dialogue can be – even in this condensed yet two and a half hours plus edition with excised characters and outside source material. Although the complicated plots and ploys require some background knowledge, the opening scrolls provide medieval flair thanks to rousing music and monastic chanting while setting the War of the Roses backdrop with a who is Lancaster and who is York introduction. I wish all Shakespeare adaptations did this! Some Burger King crowns are ugly and cheap, granted, but colorful costumes, banners, and regalia dress the castle staging in a slightly fantastic look – and hennins, people, hennins. Our titular deformed brother looks smarmy with a glare to match, on the side but intrusive before addressing his famed soliloquy directly to the camera. This up to no good unreliable narrator is the jealous audience anchor – cheated by his half a man facade yet witty and gosh darn likable as he keeps us in the know on his plans. Larry's tour de force is despicable yet enjoyable, with creepy asides daring viewers to witness his crocodile tears, marital deception, and multifaceted but seemingly effortless orchestration of brother against brother. The well done camera work matches this fly on the wall tone with over the shoulder peering, following characters through opening doors, and tracking shots across the whispering court. Such interior filming may seem congested to some – horses on set can't hide the fake snow and obviously tiny ye olde stage streets, either. However, this intimate, no scale world matches the behind closed doors family squabble at work, and the court increasingly darkens while Richard is on the throne. This doesn't feel like mid-century happy go lucky bright thanks to eerie night before the battle dreams, yet the Technicolor and VistaVision looks remain fresh. How did Sir Laurence and company not win more awards? This history is in some ways ahead of its time with its attempt to air on television and be released in theaters simultaneously – something Hollywood is only recently starting to embrace with video on demand. The feature laden Criterion DVD is an enjoyable listen just to have on the television for some background or to get in that medieval mood. It's no tragedy when Richard gets his just do in this sweeping and ironically self-aware Bosworth topper. We know how he gets the crown – with almost an hour left over those poor Princes in the Tower – and we know how the kingdom for a horse ends – with new grave findings, too – yet this vile 15th century tale remains ruthless good fun. 

Shakespeare Uncovered – This 2015 six hour Second Series from PBS uses plenty of stars to discuss all things Bard, and Hugh Bonneville, Ralph Fiennes, and Julie Taymor fittingly begin with the magic, fantasy, and universally appealing imagination versus reality of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Shakespearean history and Elizabethan scandals help breakdown stage references, comedic play within a play awareness, and text both bawdy and innocent thanks to fairies and Greek motifs. Episode Two, however, goes dark and depressing with tempers, paternal angst, rivalries, and regrets as Christopher Plummer, Ian McKellan, and Simon Russell Beale discuss “King Lear.” Contradictory madness and fragility are debated alongside separating the man from the crown, arguable happy endings, James I influences, and the never to old to reform lessons. Morgan Freeman uses Old West parallels and Bill's humble birth, sly jokes, and play commentary on the emerging London theatre industry to chat “The Taming of The Shrew” with Julia Stiles, Brian Cox, Tracey Ullman, and Fiona Shaw. Early performance footage of Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, John Cleese, and Burton and Taylor clips shape the sexism controversies, sexual innuendo, and new jokes on old nag cliches with fresh spirit, heroic independence, and a proactive female character not having any of this man's world be silent – at a time when the men on stage played the women! The fourth hour “Othello” discusses race in Elizabethan times, travel and culture exchanges, overt historical racism, and the unfortunate blackface depictions of Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier with David Harewood, Imogen Stubbs, and Patrick Stewart. Are there ones close to us that would thrive on our weakness or love just to stir the pot? You betcha, and such orchestrated hatred, jealously, and killer love is as relevant as ever. The final two episodes feel somewhat thin with more focus on the slightly pretentious on the scene presenters, however Kim Cattrall, Vanessa Redgrave, Janet Suzman, and Richard Johnson tackle the moody middle aged love versus politics, famed film perceptions, and empire shaping culture clashes of “Antony and Cleopatra” via obscure productions, intimate candlelit rehearsals, and Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar character roots. Joseph Fiennes, Orlando Bloom, Condola Rashad, and footage of Alan Rickman as a young Tybalt anchor the familiar “Romeo and Juliet” finale as the iconic relevance of these star crossed teenagers is explored with clips from Shakespeare in Love, West Side Story, the beloved Zeffirelli film, Baz Lurhmann's update, and Montagues and Capulets ballets. Rather than being stuck in a school desk and reading aloud – hated that – the historical Italian sources, comedic wit, and rival happy endings get interactive and out loud with school exercises and role reversals. This series is lighthearted but no less informative, and the conversational atmosphere is perfect for budding Bard fans to marathon straight through or for picking and choosing in comparing classroom discussions.

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