23rd April, as well as being St George’s Day, marks William Shakespeare’s birthday (if records are correct) and also the day he died. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d remember some of the best Shakespeare adaptions I’ve seen.
I’m not a massive Shakespeare aficionado, although I have enjoyed what I’ve seen. Off the top of my head, I’ve seen stage versions of Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale, Romeo & Juliet, and As You Like It. Hopefully, I’ll be seeing Robert Hastie’s production of Julius Caesar at the Sheffield Crucible in May.
The best Shakespeare stage adaption I’ve seen is As You Like It at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in the summer of 2011. I always find Shakespeare to work best when the director takes some risks and doesn’t just stick to the tried and tested period dress of the time. Greg Hershov presented a three hour plus production, which sounds testing but absolutely flew by. There was a wrestling match, a full-on singalong to round things off, and a fantastic performance by Cush Jumbo as Rosalind (she would later go on to great success in the USA in the Good Wife and its spin-off show The Good Fight). I’ve seen many plays at the Royal Exchange, but this was a definite highlight.
Othello at the Crucible in Sheffield, also in 2011, was a memorable experience for any fan of the TV show The Wire, as it marked the appearance of Dominic West and Clarke Peters on stage together. Daniel Evans staged a typically enjoyable version of the psychological drama. The set was magnificent, the story was thrilling and West and Peters were great together. It’s not my favourite Shakespeare drama, but it was fun to watch McNulty and Lester lock horns.
Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller staged a raucous version of A Winter’s Tale back in 2012 which was really good fun. It was boisterous and entertaining, with some contemporary references to Beyonce and Chumbawamba. There was also a superb performance from Tony Bell (later seen as Peter Taylor in the WYP production of The Damned United) as Autolcyus, reimagined as a louche rock star.
Of the film adaptions of Shakespeare, only two really stand out – Joss Whedon’s wonderful Much Ado About Nothing and Baz Lurhman’s Romeo & Juliet. Whedon’s movie was filmed as a break from The Avengers – a simple, low-budget affair filmed in black and white at his house in Hollywood. It basically involved all his friends (any fan of Whedon’s TV shows will have enormous fun playing spot the cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and so on), and that sense of fun is evident throughout. It’s the only Shakespeare adaption to genuinely make me laugh out loud, especially Nathan Fillion’s hilarious portrayal of Dogberry.
It’s also impossible to understate the impact that Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet had – this was Shakespeare reintroduced to a brand new audience, with Leonardo DiCaprio fans flocking to see him in anything post-Titanic, and Claire Danes getting her first big break after the cult TV show My So-Called Life. Luhrmann directed proceedings with a real energy and verve, and chose a brilliant soundtrack of The Cardigans, Radiohead and The Wannadies. I’ve not seen it for years, but I’d imagine it still stands the test of time.
Happy birthday Billy S!