A Shakespeare Trio the Sixth
by Kristin Battestella
This trio of Bard influenced dramas and documentaries is all about older analysis, reflection, and even some mistakes.
All is True – Director Kenneth Branagh (Wallander) stars as William Shakespeare alongside Judi Dench (Goldeneye), Ian McKellan (Lord of the Rings), and Hadley Fraser (Coriolanus) in this 2018 biopic recounting The Bard's final years. Opening title cards detail the 1613 burning of the Globe Theatre and how Shakespeare never wrote again, but Branagh is almost unrecognizable as Shakespeare returns to the green countryside with autumn leaves and sun kissed silhouettes. There is no action here as the conversations and country pace are reflective rather than London bustle. Twenty years he's been more about town than at home, so his wife puts Bill in the best bed for the guests. Awkward dinner scenes, tense will stipulations, and gardening struggles mirror the family disconnect as Shakespeare's attempts to apply his imagination to household references don't quite work. He and Anne are honest about their children's troubles yet they themselves are distant. She reminds him that he spent so much time putting words into people's mouths that he forgot what's unsaid matters. Not to mention she's pretty angry over his love poetry and wonders if he ever considered her reputation amid his visions of their late son Hamnet. He can converse with men of distinction despite lingering embarrassment over his upbringing and paying for a fake coat of arms, but Shakespeare provided wealth, fame, comfort, and fortune for his family – so why are they so bitter? The Bard didn't realize the rest of his family had stories to tell, but couldn't, and once the truth about Hamnet is addressed, they can heal complete with a charming explanation about that second best bed left to his wife in his will. Unfortunately, the uneven time between his daughters and their creep husbands detracts from the internal Shakespeare analysis. Even if some of their scandals are factual, their drama is here for its Puritan harshness, and the lookalike tut tutting townsfolk are also unnecessary. It's tough for us to believe Shakespeare was disrespected and belittled by small people when no external angst is needed. Such strife is just an excuse for The Bard to whip 'em with his words while his illiterate family learns to read and write to prove they love him. The Hamnet supposition also drags on even after Bill has supposedly accepted his daughters, making three years seem like three months because every plot comes back to this deceased ideal. Contrived liberties may irritate purists when the introspective legacy, attention to Tudor detail, Jacobean furniture, and Puritan garments are better. Usually we give Branagh his Shakespeare indulgences, but an outside eye not so beloved of the Bard would have smoothed the unevenness here. The cast is superb – Dench is thirty years older than her onscreen husband when Hollywood would have cast a thirty year old – and the longest scene is a twofer with McKellan's Earl of Southampton waxing on their read between the lines love and the forever young words that last long after the family line ends. Despite unnecessary intrusions, this is a perfectly period swansong meant for mature Shakespeare viewers.
Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains – Steven Berkoff (Octopussy) performs and analyzes iconic Bard figures in this fun 2019 one man presentation. Rousing Henry V monologues and London cityscapes capture the viewer's attention much more than a talking heads documentary by letting us in on the show. Berkoff's angry at diminishing changes in the text, intrusive technologies, and modern liberties that miss the point of the words. Trust the language and the speeches are enough to immerse the audience in the suspension of belief. A deliciously intimate Iago soliloquy reveals his small minded, mediocre jealously, and we can often recognize his pleasure from displeasure in ourselves. Richard III, on the other hand, is a clever villain. Berkoff compares his intelligent orchestration and sadistic motivations to not just Hitler, but Trump as fear and power make a poor substitute for real emotions. Today, we don't think we need love thanks to the internet and pornography, but wealth and corruption can't fill the vacuum created by an absence of compassion. Such disturbing characters are fun to play, but it's also difficult to wash away such darkness when you leave the boards. Rather than purely scholarly analysis, it's interesting to see the characterization through the craft. How do you add your own innovated nuance when the audience already has Olivier's take in mind? Of course, wannabe baddie Macbeth just can't get the job done thanks to the lingering loyalty holding him back. Shakespeare is shockingly succinct for his day in Lady's Macbeth's unsex me wish – the removal of her nourishing femininity makes her the male impregnating our subservient, festering thane with killer notions. Coriolanus listens to his mother and it gets him got and Oberon is going to get what he wants from Queen Tatiana even if he makes Puck do the dirty work. Berkoff concludes with his own Shakespeare experience, first as something difficult and irrelevant in his youth then later still boring compared to big Hollywood opportunities. The poetic, stirring imagery, however, brought him to the realizations and self expression to be had amid the layered pentameter. Film has its tricks but pure theatre has nothing but the actor and the playwright's words. Although the time dedicated to our heroes and villains is unequal, the mix of famous and lesser known balances out thanks to the food for though interpretations and unique perspectives. Even if you disagree with Berkoff's take, this is an entertaining gateway to some of Shakespeare's juiciest characters; an inspiration for all ages to research further and a great supplement for the at home classroom to compare and discuss.
An Unfortunate Skip
Romeo and Juliet – A cringe on both your houses! George Cukor (Let's Make Love) directs Norma Shearer (The Barretts of Wimpole Street) and Lesley Howard (Gone with the Wind) in this black and white 1936 two hour Shakespeare adaptation immediately hampered by its company of oldsters pretending to be adolescent lovers run afoul. The title card introductions also feel like silent film holdovers, however the who's who family rivalries add to the medieval mood alongside trumpets, tights, wimples, feathers, banners, tunics, tassels, fur collars, cloaks, and gems. Juliet's hair and gowns certainly take some interwar liberties, but convenient family crests and shields remind us who is who during the dares, sword fights, and rumbles in the cobblestone streets. Some of the boasting is meant to be bemusing, but most of it is over the top with fainting women, gasp there be Capulets, spitting, and it's the Montagues, our foe! The sizing each other up clout is also moot because we know it's not going to mean anything in the fatal end, and the toy wooden swords stabbing under the arm are stage fighting apparent. Although we do get to see Basil Rathbone (Comedy of Terrors) and his rapier in action, it's a mistake to intercut his skill with up close soft shots instead of using the fight to its fullest. Much of the side story angst and set up, however, could be excised. Despite their stage training, the stars are reciting juvenile, enchanted dialogue rather than really acting alongside a typically hysterical nursemaid and Andy Devine (Stagecoach) as unnecessary comic relief. The tale here is condensed yet overly romanticized with rowdy filler and poor John Barrymore (Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) looks more like a horny old man instead of a rebellious teen. The balcony scene is creepy and awkward as are the Morning Mood music bliss and angelic choruses. Is this a coming out party for an old maid and a virgin guy who just want to hold hands? Why are these grown ups talking old speaketh silly and worried about what their family thinks when they can go to the friar ASAP and get it on like adults? Nobody has to die over this not so forbidden, changing the entire dynamic of the tragedy thanks to out of touch pretentiousness and try hard windblown reinforcing the pompous elitism for those who think negatively of Shakespeare. If this was based on the play but an adult version with updated language, a lot of what's wrong here could be forgiven thanks to the fine production values. Fans of the cast and Shakespeare completists may find some delight here, but even if you like classics, it's easier to perceive this as a riff-able spoof with no expectations.