Much Ado About Shakespeare
November 19, 2007 5:27 PM   Subscribe

BBC/HBO to film all 37 of Shakespeare's plays Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes will produce the entire canon over 12 years.
posted by crossoverman (51 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Didn't the BBC already do that in the early eighties?
posted by octothorpe at 5:31 PM on November 19, 2007

Duh, they talk about the last set in the first paragraph of the article. Just ignore me.
posted by octothorpe at 5:33 PM on November 19, 2007

and King John will probably be the last. That fucker, King John, what a man he was. My favorite.
posted by parmanparman at 5:37 PM on November 19, 2007

And you know, I'd like someone to film Jonson's Volpone or The Alchemist or Bartholmew Fair, just frikkin' once.

Seriously: as nice as this is, the world does not need more filmed Shakespeare.
posted by jrochest at 5:39 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

The treasurer of the British Shakespeare Association, Stuart Hampton-Reeves, said it was important that modern audiences weren't bombarded with too much text. He said: "Modern audiences are used to immediate language, plot delivery and fast cutaways. The best Shakespeare adaptations have cut the text in a way that is suitable for TV."

I hope they don't listen to that guy.
posted by Prospero at 5:40 PM on November 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

The best version of Hamlet I'll probably ever see was done by the Old Globe in San Diego in 1990. George C. Scott's son, Campbell Scott, was Hamlet. Jack O'Brien directed it. And although I'd read Shakespeare and seen it performed before, it was the first time it was ever alive for me, the first time I actually was riveted to every single syllable. It was the first time I really saw Shakespeare performed with solid American accents instead of stuffy tones of faux-royalty. The acting was so amazing, it all came across as so naturally conversational that I actually GOT it. I was really invested as I watched it, even though I knew the story it was like I'd never heard it before. Also, they put kind of an F. Scott Fitzgerald spin to it, and I happened to be reading The Last Tycoon and loving the 1920s at the time so that helped too. The sets and the clothes were just so gorgeous and it just really worked surprisingly well. Hamlet had this Great Gatsby air of privilege, and I was completely transfixed. That production made the entire story of Hamlet and every character real to me.

For that reason, I thinm it's probably one of the best plays I will ever see in my life.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:03 PM on November 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Well, I guess there are worse fetishes.
posted by nedpwolf at 6:13 PM on November 19, 2007

That's a wonderfull and heartfelt tribute miss l and while I have a few of my own favorite renditions of plays I've seen in the past, your tuppence-worth here will do nicely. Just a great image of your experience.
posted by Sk4n at 6:17 PM on November 19, 2007

And yet we can't get a third season of Rome.
posted by boo_radley at 6:25 PM on November 19, 2007

No one’s ever gonna top Bob Hoskins as Iago (1981). Saw that and I wanted to punch him in the head ever since. Yeah, yeah, he was great in Roger Rabbit, but he was a total bastard to Othello. Amazing how viscerally he affected me. Think “Spoor” from Brazil magnified by a hundred.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:30 PM on November 19, 2007

This is better than a third season of Rome.
posted by crossoverman at 6:30 PM on November 19, 2007

I could watch Shakespeare all day long every day, so I'm thrilled, and I can't wait to laugh and cry and get in there with tweezers and pick it all apart.

I need to order a bigger hard drive for my Tivo!
posted by padraigin at 6:33 PM on November 19, 2007

...or a fourth season of deadwood (or either of the feature films, those cocksuckers.)
posted by CitizenD at 6:34 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Smedleyman, thanks for the tip ! Netflix has the Hoskins Othello downloadable - you've just inked in my dance card for this evening...
posted by twsf at 6:40 PM on November 19, 2007

Bottom Of Barrel Dangerously Overscraped, Experts Warn
"We need to look at this optimistically: The barrel isn't 99.9999 percent empty, it's .0001 percent full." [NOT SHAKESPEAREIST]
posted by finite at 6:42 PM on November 19, 2007

twsf: Dude, don't get the Othello. It's so bad. Anthony Hopkins completely sleepwalks through his role as the title character, and they cut all the lines about Othello being black. Hopkins is fine as Iago, I guess, but Ian McKellan is far better in the 1990 RSC production.

Anyway, this is great, as some of the older BBC ones are terrible, and it'd be nice to see some of the great, underperformed plays (Winter's Tale, Richard II) out there again, but I do agree with jrochest. Seriously, someone needs to do the complete Marlowe. That's like 7 plays, all brilliant, and all way ahead of their time. After that, I'd love to see some Jonson, Middleton, Webster... so much amazing drama from the period that rarely gets performed outside of English theatre companies.
posted by papakwanz at 6:51 PM on November 19, 2007

>I'd like someone to film Jonson's Volpone or The Alchemist or Bartholmew Fair
>complete Marlowe... Middleton, Webster... so much amazing drama from the period that rarely gets performed outside of English theatre companies

I agree. I agree.
posted by philfromhavelock at 6:58 PM on November 19, 2007

Having one director do them all is like scheduling a train wreck. Even if it's a good director. Even if it was my favorite director in the whole world, I wouldn't want to see all twelve directed by the same person. This is gonna be ba-a-a-a-d. (And annyhow, why can't they remake the all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which were also filmed by British TV in the 1980s?)
posted by Faze at 7:01 PM on November 19, 2007

Having one director do them all is like scheduling a train wreck.

Nowhere does it say Mendes will direct them all. In fact:

"Mendes, a former director of the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London, who took the original idea to the corporation and who will himself direct several of the productions, said the series promised to be extrordinary."

[emphasis mine]
posted by crossoverman at 7:06 PM on November 19, 2007

Faze: 37 plays, 12 years.
posted by papakwanz at 7:16 PM on November 19, 2007

This is going to be very educational in terms of recognizing the unevenness of the Shakespeare ouvre. There's a Gilbert and Sullivan Society near us that runs through all the G&S over a period of some years and has been doing so forever, and every now and then, I show up for one of the plays and think, "You know, there's a reason people mostly don't produce this one." Some of the Shakespeare will be like that, too.

Thirding the wish that we could get beyond W.S. when thinking about bringing Renaissance Lit to the masses.
posted by not that girl at 7:20 PM on November 19, 2007

This is fucking awesome.I would prefer them to stick to the text word for word, but we will see. The thought of having BBC / HBO produced (i.e., at least decent values, even if the interpretation isn't optimal) versions of all of the Bard's plays indexed on a hard drive makes me feel....tingly. Freakin awesome.

I'll totally pay to buy the DVD set and rip it too, not just download it.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:26 PM on November 19, 2007

How often are many of Shakespeare's plays performed uncut? From what I know, the answer is "not very often." So it's not like they're talking about making reader's digest versions of the plays when talking about cutting them.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:28 PM on November 19, 2007

I'd rather see the emphasis on doing them well rather than doing them all. The latter just comes across as a marketing stunt.

Besides, as others have suggested -- not least Jonathan Miller -- it's not all that interesting a project, certainly not daring, and at the end you've produced another edition of something the world already knows about, but no more of anything the world perhaps should know more about.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:50 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's wonderful that the great work of Shakespeare is finally heading to the screen after all these years. Kudos to HBO and the BBC for taking a risk!
posted by dhammond at 8:31 PM on November 19, 2007

Eh, snark all you want -- I know I'm curious to see it. The world may not really need another Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, but there's a great deal of Shakespeare that is rarely even performed, much less filmed. Piques my interest.

(All told, I'd rather see more "Deadwood," but hey.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:40 PM on November 19, 2007

yo - cast my vote as enthusiastically in favor of this - although perhaps I'm prejudiced by way too many conversations about how current media plays way too much to the lowest common denominator. Nothing like a little Shakespeare to cure that!
posted by fingers_of_fire at 8:55 PM on November 19, 2007

Weird, Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It from just last year was a BBC/HBO production, too.

I know this is heresy, but I really prefer reading a good annotated version to seeing the plays performed. There's just so much in the text - historical puns, jokes, problematic phrases we don't quite understand - that no production can capture properly. Give me a good set of annotations instead of a director's compromises any day.

(Ok, that was a bit strong; I'm sure excellent productions that don't leave too much out are possible. But so far, reading Shakespeare has always been much richer for me than seeing it performed. And besides, nothing will ever match Tiny Ninja Theater's Macbeth.)
posted by mediareport at 8:58 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Very nice! It will be good to have decent modern film versions of "Troilus & Cressida," "Richard II," and "Love's Labours Lost." (I'm afraid the qualification 'decent' doesn't really apply to Kenneth Branagh's recent musical version of LLL).

I'm with the people who'd like to see more love for Shakespeare's contemporaries. If Mendes were to swap in "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" for "Timon of Athens," I sure as hell wouldn't complain.
posted by Iridic at 8:58 PM on November 19, 2007

To kids coming in my library, the '80s versions (and yes, we have the aforementioned Othello) may as well be 3000 years old. They are not interested.

Now I'm a firm believer in not doing things just because it makes teenagers lives easier, but I can see this being able to finally interest younger people in some Shakespeare. For a little while anyways, until they seem too old again.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:08 PM on November 19, 2007

Shakespeare has been done so many times and I love it when people do crazy things like set Shakespeare in a car wash or a minor league hockey league. That being said, it seems like a production of the magnitude deserves the cohesion that the time spent affords. I hope they can pull this off in a good way, and for better or for worse, I expect that the productions will be traditional.
posted by dhammond at 9:10 PM on November 19, 2007

miss lynnster: Interesting. I didn't know about that stage prodution, but I was a camera assistant on Campbell Scott's feature film of Hamlet in the summer of 2000. It had a very similar concept; in fact it was filmed at a Gilded Age mansion out on Long Island.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:18 PM on November 19, 2007

The world may not really need another Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet

The world can always use another Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, or Winter's Tale, or Much Ado About Nothing, or any of the canon. I've seen every Hamlet I can -- movies, television, live stage, camcorder bootlegs of stage productions, modernized, parodies high concept -- you name it. Every single one of them has had something to say to me. Sometimes what it said to me is "no one in this production has a clue what they're doing," but even that is illuminating in the way that drawing negative space makes you see positive space -- if you can tease out why a bad performance is bad, that teaches you something about the play.

Shakespeare's plays are constantly produced for a reason: they contain within them all of what it is to be human. In my opinion, that is an endless source of exploration, and even the minor works have something worthwhile in them.

If anyone is interested in a television comedy/drama which looks at what it is like to work on Shakespeare's plays (while also being terrifically entertaining in its own right), check out Slings and Arrows. It's on DVD. There are three seasons of six episodes each. Season One shows the company putting on Hamlet, Season Two has them working on Macbeth, and Season Three brings us King Lear. I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by tzikeh at 10:38 PM on November 19, 2007 [5 favorites]

I was excited, until I read Octothorpe's article and the Miller quotes.

Here are more details of the 70s/80s BBC adaptations. Surely repeating the exercise is to admit that these versions were toilet. I haven't seen these, and I might try to dig them out. If they're any good, then what's the point?

And I still need to rewatch Shakespeare: The Animated Tales which I recently acquired on DVD.
posted by nthdegx at 1:00 AM on November 20, 2007

I have to disagree strongly about Anthony Hopkins performance in the old BBC Othello. What he does in the scene where Iago finally convinces him that he's be cuckolded is one of the greatest, most stirring things I've seen in my life.

Plus, in that old series, the "Lear" is directed by Jonathan Miller of "Beyond the Fringe" fame, and there are some lovely bits in it. Let alone Micheal Hordern as Lear.
posted by Trochanter at 2:06 AM on November 20, 2007

Well said, tzikeh - there's always good reason to mount new versions of Shakespeare's plays. And producing a modern BBC/HBO collaboration of the entire canon - I almost can't believe it's being attempted.

Ditto on Slings & Arrows, too. Marvelous television.

I was aware of some of the 1980s BBC productions mentioned above - but wasn't aware they were part of a production of the entire canon, as this new project is as well. I tend to think these new versions of the plays will show a considerable advancement in production on all levels - compare any BBC television from the 80s to what it's producing now.
posted by crossoverman at 2:35 AM on November 20, 2007

I've seen a couple of the old 70s/80s versions and they are just not up to scratch production-wise compared to what you can do today. They weren't even at the high-water mark of what was being done, so think of bad 80s television - shot on video, badly lit, very stagy in obviously studio setting... despite obvious high-lights like Felicity Kendal as Viola.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:53 AM on November 20, 2007

Obsessive completism is underrated, and this is Shakespeare on nightmare difficulty with 100% kills and secrets. I can't wait.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 3:31 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Finally! Of course, it helps that now we have the special effects to do the works justice.
posted by Sparx at 3:41 AM on November 20, 2007

To be or not to be, that is the motherfuckin' question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the fuckin' mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fuckin' fortune,
Or to put a cap in a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To be whacked, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand what-the-fucks
That booty is heir to — 'tis a sweet fuckin' consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about,
For in that fuckin' sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have slept with the fishes,
Must give us some motherfuckin' pause.
posted by brain_drain at 5:29 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, so much for American Beauty 2: Electric Smugaloo.

But seriously, this sounds intriguing - and yet I don't have cable.
posted by Neilopolis at 6:01 AM on November 20, 2007

current media plays way too much to the lowest common denominator. Nothing like a little Shakespeare to cure that!

Considering that a large part of Shakespeare's audience would have been illiterate peasants, drunks, prostitutes, con-men, and other unsavory types, fresh from the brothel or a bear-baiting arena, that statement is rather unknowingly ironic.

Re: the 80s BBC series.
If you can put production values aside, some of them are quite good. I really enjoy The Merchant of Venice and Richard II, for example. Some are not so good, like The Tempest, or outright terrible, like Othello. It's a mixed bag, but I enjoy owning it. By the way, if you have the capability to play region 2 DVDs, buy them from Amazon UK. I got the whole set when I was in England for 150 pounds, which was about $280 at the time. If you want to buy the complete set of American DVDs, it'll cost you over $1000.

Again, I still say that someone could produce some amazing versions of Marlowe for a fraction of the cost, and with the right promotion, they could be quite popular. Bill them as "Written by Shakespeare's Mentor!" or something like that. How awesome would an epic version of Tamburlaine 1 & 2 be? Or a dark, twistedly comedic Jew of Malta. Ah, I guess I can always dream.
posted by papakwanz at 6:46 AM on November 20, 2007

Great. £100 million on re-runs.
posted by vbfg at 8:29 AM on November 20, 2007

Hey, maybe it's time to get that "Coriolanus WTF" t-shirt that I've wanted for years.
posted by COBRA! at 8:56 AM on November 20, 2007

nthdegx: "Here are more details of the 70s/80s BBC adaptations. Surely repeating the exercise is to admit that these versions were toilet are thirty years old and never seen anymore, so this project will reach an entirely new generation of viewers."

Ever-fixed mark, etc.
posted by tzikeh at 9:28 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

. . .and Keanu Reeves will star in all of them. Opposite Claire Danes.
posted by flotson at 10:30 AM on November 20, 2007

I'm so saddened by the folks who say, "the world doesn't need another 'Hamlet'." And my sadness is not Shakespeare-specific. I'd feel just as sad if they said, "The world doesn't need another 'Uncle Vanya'" or "The world doesn't need another 'Death of a Salesman.'"

Those plays are so complex and layered: if you change one aspect -- if you cast a different actor as Hamet -- the whole play changes. Even if you don't cast a different actor, the same actor, a week later, may give an old line a new twist, and that will could send the whole play spinning in a new direction.

The sort of people who say, "Do we really need another X?" tend to be (in my experience) the same sort of people who read/watch plays to "get the point." They say, "I didn't need to watch the whole thing. I watched the first half hour and got the point." Or they say, "I don't need to see it again. I got the point the first time." I don't think these people are stupid or bad or wrong. But I do think they're missing out on one of life's great pleasures: nuance. And that's what makes me sad.

As far as I'm concerned, "Hamlet" doesn't have a "point." There's nothing to "get." It's not something to see so you can check it off the "things I guess I should see" list.* Please! If that's your reason for seeing it, don't see it in the first place.

The reason -- or rather one of the millions of reasons -- to see "Hamet" is because you're desperate to know how the particular actor playing the lead is going to say the word "mother" in his line "Mother, you have my father much offended." Will he whisper it, scream it, say it mockingly, sadly, with love, with hatred...? And how will Gertrude respond?

Here's one more example of the power of nuance: years ago, I went to see a performance of Andre Gregory's "Uncle Vanya" (which later became the film, "Vanya on 42nd Street"). In that play, Sonya begs Doctor Astrov to stop drinking.

She begged him, he thought about it, made a decision, turned to her and said, "All right. I won't drink." And that was it. He didn't touch another drop until the very end of the play, when he had a little vodka.

I loved the performance so much that I went back to see it the very next night. It was the same actors, the same production, the same script... Yet that night, when Sonya asked Astrov to stop drinking, he said "All right. I won't drink" casually, almost jokingly, without giving it any thought at all. And then, as he continued the scene, he casually poured himself another drink. Sonya saw this, of course, and it utterly changed her interactions with him for the whole rest of the play.

* I blame school. In school, we're forced to read Shakespeare when we're don't want to. Most of the people I know who love Shakespeare, love him in spite of that, not because of it. Luckily, they already liked Shakespeare before encountering him in school, so the forcing didn't seem like forcing. Or, if they were like me, they hated it. I hated "Romeo ad Juliet" when I was forced to read it in High School. I hated anything I was forced to read, just because it was forced on me.

Most people in my shoes feel a distaste for whatever was forced on them for the rest of their lives. At 42, I'm only JUST getting over my distaste for math. I can see math is a beautiful subject, but because it was forced on me before I was ready for it, it's hard for me to shake the desire to rebel against it. And because of gym class, I wonder if I'll EVER learn to like sports. Luckily, I had other formative experiences that stopped me from associating Shakespeare with school. So I like Shakespeare.

Also, in school, one is pretty much told that we watch/read plays to "get the point." It's all about Theme, Message, Social Import, blah, blah, blah. It's not about crying when Cordelia dies or laughing when Bottom turns into an ass. School ignores or -- worse -- scorns the best part of fiction: the laughter, the tears, the emotional spice!

Finally, school teaches us that smart people are supposed to like Shakespeare -- or at least read/see his plays. If you don't like it, you're dumb. So we wind up with a bunch of people who don't really want to read or see Shakespeare but feel like they should. Of COURSE these people -- once they've finished with the pain of sitting through "Hamlet" -- don't want to do it again.
posted by grumblebee at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

Considering that a large part of Shakespeare's audience would have been illiterate peasants, drunks, prostitutes, con-men, and other unsavory types, fresh from the brothel or a bear-baiting arena, that statement is rather unknowingly ironic.

To find irony in this is baffling. Yes, Shakespeare may have played to those audiences originally, but the text/language was contemporary to the time so accessible to all. Now Shakespeare is in the main an elitist pursuit; this project will bring his work to a cross-section of audiences.

(I refuse to use the term "lowest common denominator", which smacks of classism.)
posted by Lleyam at 12:01 PM on November 20, 2007

(I have to agree with papakwanz on the overall production. Worth watching it (to me) for Hoskins though.)
posted by Smedleyman at 1:46 PM on November 20, 2007

tzikeh, as someone that is massively enjoying my Ealing comedy boxset at the moment, I cannot accept "thirty years old" as reason enough to repeat an exercise. Tom Hanks could not improve upon Ladykillers. Now, if Shakespeare, who I am a massive fan of, was the only dramatist in the English language, I'd be perfectly happy if the BBC re-adapted his plays every year. The Miller quote that most rings true, is the accusation of the BBC that they are culturally illiterate. To make every one of the bard's plays is a massive undertaking. They have done it before. There's so much other stuff they could be doing.
posted by nthdegx at 4:13 PM on November 20, 2007

I'm not really sure exactly who Lleyam is snarking on, nor what his point is.
posted by papakwanz at 5:47 PM on November 20, 2007

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