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Brush up Your Shakespeare! (VIDEOS)

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Each September, as millions of high school students return to school, a select group discover that they will be studying a play written by William Shakespeare. Whether it be Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, this will probably be their first exposure to a version of the English language that sounds nothing like their vernacular.

There's a reason why the plays of William Shakespeare have remained popular for more than 400 years. Most are brilliantly written, with a richness of language that has transcended time. Some (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) have survived being updated to different historical periods while being adapted for the musical stage, where they have reappeared as West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, The Boys From Syracuse, and Two Gentlemen of Verona ). Some have even been transformed into ballets (The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello).

Composers ranging from Benjamin Britten (A Midsummer Night's Dream) to Otto Nicolai (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Giuseppe Verdi (Macbeth, Falstaff, and Otello) have created operatic classics based on Shakespeare's plays.

Composers writing in vastly different styles -- from Aribert Reimann (Lear) to Giaochino Rossini (Otello) and Ambrose Thomas (Hamlet); from Ralph Vaughn Williams (Sir John In Love) to Thomas Adès (The Tempest) and Hector Berlioz (Béatrice and Bénédict) have all been inspired by Shakespeare's plays. Frederick Delius (A Village Romeo and Juliet), Charles Gounod (Roméo et Juliette), Vincenzo Bellini (I Capuletti e I Montecchi), and Riccardo Zandonai (Giulietta e Romeo) -- have all composed operas inspired by Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. Even Richard Wagner took a stab at the Bard's work with Das Liebesverbot!

Unfortunately, not every adaptation of a Shakespearean play is a success. Movies like Romeo Must Die and 10 Things I Hate About You have not become film classics. This summer the Marin Shakespeare Company offered a version of The Taming of the Shrew in a Pirates of the Caribbean setting ("Aargh, I am ashamed that women are so simple!"). On September 25th, the Washington Shakespeare Company's annual benefit featured portions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet performed in Klingon with the melancholy Dane's "To be or not to be" translated into "baQa', Qovpatlh, toy'wl"a' qal je jIH."

Recently, in their efforts to either dumb down the text or make Shakespeare more relevant to a minority community, some aspiring playwrights have mucked things up beyond recognition. The worst transgression I've encountered (which resembled the rape of an art form) was a ghastly adaptation of Othello designed for San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company based on the following premise:

"In this version, Iago is an overweight African-American woman who has a love fantasy about Othello. She loses a promotion and feels even more betrayed when he marries Desdemona."

Bottom line? There are enough things about Iago's character to make him a loathsome villain without transforming him.

I recently realized that there might be a new and highly effective way to introduce young audiences to Shakespeare. Instead of finding ways to update Shakespeare or rewrite his texts, a fascinating collection of DVDs is now available to light a fire of curiosity within someone's mind. What could generate enough interest to make people want to experience Shakespeare in a live theatrical production? What could define the road less taken toward developing an appreciation for Shakespeare?

The answer is simple: Movies whose dramatic conflicts revolve around what could go wrong during the performance of a play by William Shakespeare.

Whether these films get woven into a high school or college curriculum, chosen for an ongoing discussion group among cinema fans, or provide the content for one of ElderHostel's Road Scholar or Adventures Afloat programs, they offer plenty of food for thought. Consider the following:

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1983's The Dresser is set in England during World War II as air raid sirens signal the approach of German bombers. Albert Finney stars as Sir, an aging and increasingly disoriented Shakespearean actor who has been the head of a small theatrical troupe that tours Great Britain throughout the year.

As Sir and his company arrive in London during the blitz, the actor starts to suffer a nervous breakdown. His dresser and stage manager struggle to get him through the evening's performance of King Lear. With bravura performances from Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, and Eileen Atkins, The Dresser combines the storm in Shakespeare's King Lear with equally stormy proceedings backstage.


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Set at the fictional New Burbage Festival, Slings and Arrows is a brilliant Canadian television series that ran for three seasons (during which its plot revolved around the shenanigans surrounding productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear.). Anyone who has worked for a nonprofit arts company will stand up and cheer as each piece of backstage folly is captured with comic brilliance.

The New Burbage Festival has one asset that no other regional arts company can claim: a ghost. But this is not just any ghost. It is the ghost of the company's founding artistic director, Oliver Wells, who has settled in to haunt his successor, Geoffrey Tenant.

Once a brilliant young actor, Geoffrey suffered a nervous breakdown while starring in a performance of Hamlet and was forced to spend some time in a mental institution. What better training could there be for running a nonprofit Shakespeare festival?

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Tom Gustafson's breathtaking movie musical, Were The World Mine, accomplishes something that happens once every 25-50 years. It takes the magic of Shakespeare's writing and uses dramatic material that is as old as the hills to inspire a new generation by showing how remarkably relevant Shakespeare can be to today's youth.

Although this new interpretation lacks a traditional Bottom, there are plenty of talented and hunky young prep school boys who are eager to please. The appealing Tanner Cohen stars as Timothy, a local gay student who is constantly bullied by his classmates at a privileged prep school. Under the coy guidance of the drama coach, Ms. Tebbit, Timothy lands the role of Puck in his school's all-male production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Fiercely defending the drama department against the ignorance embodied in the school's football coach, Ms. Tebbit acts as a master puppeteer who guides her students through the artistic process of learning lines, rehearsing scenes, and eventually performing and understanding the effect of a great work of art. After being advised to try singing his lines as a way to commit them to memory, Timothy latches on to the power of Shakespeare's poetic meter as well as the hidden meaning of the Bard's words. In the process, he unearths the secret formula to the love potion used in Shakespeare's play. What follows proves, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the course of true love never does run smooth.

That's because Timothy has a little trick up his sleeve that not even Ms. Tebbit knows about. After decoding the recipe to Shakespeare's love potion, he has plucked himself a potent pansy whose magical moisture now has the same effect on local townspeople as it did in Shakespeare's play. Having witnessed the effect of its intoxicating nectar on a supposedly straight friend (who is now swooning over Timothy), the young queerboy sets about helping people overcome their prejudices and inhibitions to fall in love with those they would never consider to be a suitable match. Armed with the knowledge of exactly how he might change people's lives, Timothy does his best to turn the town gay.

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Written by Gareth Armstrong and directed by Michal Shabtay about one of the most famous Jews in all of literature, the promotional blurb for Shylock reads as follows:

"Stepping in and out of character while trolling around an elegant Dutch theater augmented by life-sized video projections of a modern production of The Merchant of Venice, actor Cahit Ölmez is decidedly 'not just talking about plays and acting.' Addressing us, his audience, Ölmez excavates Tubal, a minor but freighted Shakespearean creation, the only friend of Merchant's notorious Semitic villain, Shylock. Tubal grants Ölmez fresh access to Shylock and the scars of the Elizabethan era's rampant anti-Semitism. And though Shakespeare may never have known a Jew, Shylock's tragic dimension has given rise to an unsettling ambiguity winding through centuries of theatrical history to this moment: a provocative meta-theatrical venture seeking nothing less than the chance to set Shylock free."

It takes a while to get used to the multimedia format of Shylock as the film careens from the stage to the street, from an actor soliloquizing in a theatre's grand salon to the actor doubling as Shylock and Tubal as the two characters argue with each other in a backstage dressing room. Often riveting by sheer virtue of its investigatory passion and analytical zeal, Shylock becomes a master class for actors, directors, and scholars in how to dissect a fictional character who has been created against a historical background.

The skill with which Shabtay moves his living lecture from one environment to another while delivering a masterful overview of how Jews were perceived during the era in which The Merchant of Venice (which was first performed at the court of England's King James I in 1605) is set becomes a masterful juggling act which also traces the history of how Jews have been portrayed in Shakespeare.

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Written and directed by Jordan Galland (with a mischievous musical score by Sean Lennon), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure. The fact that this film is a rip roaring spoof of its genre becomes obvious with the first appearance of a font. Throughout the film, the action is interrupted by titles such as Long Day's Journey Into Fright, Death of a Pale Man, The Policeman Cometh, and Breakfast IS Tiffany.

A treat for lovers of "the the-ay-ter" (as well as Shakespearean scholars, vampire fetishists, horror hounds, and lonely Goth types) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead stands out as the kind of low-budget film that its cast wanted to make for the sheer fun of it. The principle characters inhabiting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead include:

  • Julian Marsh: a slacker who has been living in one of the rooms of his father's medical office. While Julian has no problem picking up girls, finding a job has had decidedly less appeal.
  • Vince: Julian's wingman. When they go out cruising for women, Julian and Vince like to pretend that they're both gay (knowing that their ruse usually leads to invitations to feel a woman's breasts in order to give feedback on whether or not they're real).
  • Hugo Pepper: a tall, bearded hypochondriac who occasionally wears a tin-foil hat instead of a turban. Dr. Marsh's most devoted patient is one truly sick Sikh.
  • Dr. Marsh: Julian's father who only wishes his son could get a life. When Dr. Marsh insists that Julian answer an ad for a stage director (preferably human) to work on a new interpretation of Hamlet, he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
  • Theo Horace/Horatio: a most eccentric and affected playwright who has written a strange new version of Hamlet that is to be performed by a cast of vampires (who will devour the audience after the final curtain).
  • Detective Wimbly: not exactly one of New York's finest.
  • Bobby Bianchi: an Italian mobster trying to peddle a product called "Germ-o-Whack" which shoots a germicide out of a water pistol. Bobby is hypersensitive about being stereotyped as a member of the Mafia.
  • Hamlet: the not-so-melancholy Prince of Denmark who has been on a life-long quest for the Holy Grail.

While there are all kinds of strange references to the Rosicrucian Society and The Shakespiracy (a secret society devoted to exposing vampires and finding the Holy Grail), this movie is just a lot of grand and silly fun.

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For theatre buffs who have only heard about Orson Welles and his spectacular triumph in the Mercury Theatre's production of Julius Caesar (but have seen few photographs of the production), Me and Orson Welles is major treat. Filled with much more than the usual backstage intrigue and neuroses, Richard Linklater's film recreates parts of the legendary production using sets and costumes based on the historic 1937 staging. As the director notes:

"You rarely get the opportunity to recreate theatrical lighting. With most films, even a stylized period piece, you bend a little towards naturalism. But when you are recreating the exact lighting of this highly dramatic, very theatrical stage show, it's just fun. Supposedly, the great cinematographer Gregg Toland saw this production of Julius Caesar and, when he heard that Welles was going to Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, told him he wanted to work with him because of the lighting he had done for the play."

Throughout the film, one sees actors portraying actors who are acting in a Shakespearean play. Ben Chaplin delivers a magnificent portrayal of actor George Coulouris (who takes on the role of Mark Antony) while Eddie Marsan lends support as the legendary John Houseman. As Marsan notes:

"I'd like people to get a growing awareness of theatre in this period, because it was fascinating, and it actually informed acting. The people of this period became the acting teachers for people like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Benicio del Toro. All the great acting schools in New York and Los Angeles came from these theatre projects, which were publicly funded at this time. I want people to realize the genius of Orson Welles, which is underappreciated. I also want people to realize what it was like to be around someone so creative. Sometimes they can be so compassionate that you can fall in love with them, but they also can be so brutal."

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In 1948, Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate focused on the love/hate relationship between two lead actors who are starring in a touring production of Shakespeare's comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. The setup was brilliant, allowing Porter to blend onstage and backstage dramas with a healthy dose of musical charm and his usual devastating wit.

Kiss Me, Kate won the 1949's Tony Award for Best Musical and was subsequently transferred into an MGM movie musical in 1953 starring Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, and a young Bob Fosse. Viewers will find it fascinating to compare the §1953 film adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate to the 2001 London revival, starring Brent Barrett and Rachel York, that was broadcast over the Public Broadcasting System as part of the Great Performances series. The following clip (during which two gangsters advise the audience on how they can "Brush Up Your Shakespeare") is always a high point of show:


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