Crystal's Pronounced Speech

Crystal's Pronounced Speech

Many have speculated over the years what actors in Shakespeare's time might have sounded like. Some may remember John Barton in the 1979 series Playing Shakespeare reciting a passage from Henry V in original pronunciation (OP). He explains it is an approximation comprising a variety of modern English, Irish, and American accents.

Beyond the obvious historical fascination, the idea of OP has intrigued actors and directors for years because it elongates the words (though it is technically faster than Received Pronunciation) and gives them a more "earthy" feel—and thereby a more grounded connection to the actor's body and emotions. Once the ear is accustomed, it is a more naturalistic style of speaking, albeit somewhat pirate-like ("warrrrr"). In 2004, the Globe Theatre put this notion to the test with their production of Romeo & Juliet. OP experts David Crystal and his son Ben Crystal coached the actors to speak just like they would have done in Elizabethan England in the late 16th century. Audiences expressed concern they might not understand the actors and the dialect would be too "foreign", however the result was a resounding success (so much so that David Crystal wrote Pronouncing Shakespeare, a book detailing the process).

For American audiences, fears were also unfounded. In November 2011, Ben Crystal played the title role in Hamlet at the University of Nevada at Reno (under the guidance of department chair and RSC editor, Eric Rasmussen). He coached the other actors in the OP dialect who, in a post-performance discussion, said it was one of the best experiences they had ever had performing Shakespeare. 

So how can a centuries-old dialect be resurrected? It is a painstaking process of collecting observations made by people who wrote about pronunciation at the time, studying the spelling of words, and figuring out what pronunciation was necessary to make rhymes and puns work. The result is a new audio CD from the British Library titled Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation, a collection of scenes, sonnets and soliloquies read by Ben Crystal and a troupe of professional actors. 

The recording itself is top-notch. Voices are clear and distinct with a naturalistic tone—a critical element to the success of a spoken audio recording. The actors, under Ben Crystal's tutelage, clearly know what they are doing, hitting the hard "r" and sounding out syllables that are contracted in today's speech. The speech selection of 28 tracks is a well-known one, but broad enough to demonstrate a variety of vowel sounds and rhythms. Natalie Thomas gives a particularly touching reading of sonnet 71 ("No longer mourn for me when I am dead"), and Hilton McRae does a regal turn as King Lear—giving a new level of depth to the text.

The project itself is a remarkable achievement, which is the first of its kind. If you are a student new to Shakespeare, or an accomplished scholar, this CD gives a fresh perspective on the Bard's words. It is so fun to listen to, you will be walking around the rest of the day imitating the sounds and "speaking the speech."

Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation is narrated by Ben Crystal, Philip Bird, Rebecca Pownell, Natalie Thomas, Benjamin O'Mahony, Matthew Mellalieu, Colin Hurley, Hilton McRae, and others.

Buy on iTunes


Listen to Shakespeare Talks podcast #008 (Ben Crystal Talks About OP)



Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 5)

Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 5)

This is the fifth part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read the Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

5. Twelfth Night directed by Trevor Nunn

With Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film of Twelfth Night we come to a crossroads at which converges virtually everything that has come before in filmed Shakespeare. Let’s begin with Nunn himself. The second Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he took over from Peter Hall in 1968. Like Hall, he was Cambridge educated, young—28 when he took over the RSC—and ensemble minded. Unlike Hall, however, who’d directed Olivier’s final Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959, Nunn had no experience with, and no particular reverence for, either the actor-manager tradition or the star system which replaced it. Enough of a star in his own right, after directing a series of phenomenally successful first run musicals, including Cats and Les Miserables, Nunn has avoided star-driven projects, preferring to assemble the kind of top tier ensemble cast which powered his Macbeth. Ian McKellen is the exception which proves the rule in Nunn’s case; the two have collaborated on several projects. Nor is Nunn averse to a little good old fashioned nepotism. It’s fortunate for his reputation that he has married two such talented actresses: Janet Suzman, an RSC leading lady from the mid 60s to the early 70s, and, famously, Nunn’s 1972 Cleopatra, and Imogen Stubbs, Desdemona in Nunn’s 1989 Othello (with McKellen as Iago) and Viola in his 1996 film of Twelfth Night.

Nunn’s choice of the play was itself revolutionary. Ever since Beerbohm Tree filmed a silent excerpt from his King John in 1899, the history of Shakespearean film has been dominated by the tragedies and the histories. In 1989, 90 years of filming the plays had produced a total of two Shrews, two Dreams and an As You Like It. A few others had made it to television, and there were a handful of non-English films. By contrast the same period had seen three Romeos, three Macbeths, two Caesars, two Hamlets, two Othellos, King Lear, Henry V, Richard III, and Antony and Cleopatra, not to mention Chimes at Midnight; and all this in addition to silents, non-English films, television productions, etc. There are any number of reasons for the discrepancy, the most obvious of which harkens back to our discussion of 18th and 19th century Shakespeare. The prime movers behind most filmed Shakespeare are and were men: Olivier, Welles, Brook, Zeffirelli, Hall, Polanski, Mankiewicz, Branagh, George Cukor, Charlton Heston, Maurice Evans, and Max Reinhart. There are also practical considerations: the tragedies and histories tend toward single protagonists—Caesar and Romeo being two obvious exceptions—and it’s both easier and cheaper to hire a Hamlet or a Macbeth than it is to round up, for example, Rosalind, Celia, Orlando, Touchstone, and Jaques. And there is cultural prejudice: filmed Shakespeare is, by its very nature, significant; the greatest actors of an age recording performances of the greatest works in the history of English dramatic letters. Public perceptions simply lend more weight to tragedy. Comedy is entertainment; tragedy contains meaning, moral directives, profundity. Finally there is the persuasive fact that Shakespearean comedy just doesn’t seem to translate to film as comfortably as tragedy. Directors have tried a number of approaches: Reinhart’s Dream is romantic and lyrical, while Peter Hall’s shoots for edgy and sexy. The Fairbanks/Pickford Shrew tries for pluck, while Zeffirelli’s fails at farce. And nobody has a good word to say about Paul Czinner’s 1936 As You Like It. Much of what existed pre-1989 was labored, little was fun, and almost none of it was actually funny.

Again it fell to Branagh to point the way forward with a beautifully shot if unevenly acted 1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing. This film has much to recommend it, including Branagh’s charming Benedick, Richard Briers’ thoughtful Leonato, and—best of all—Emma Thompson’s exquisite and melancholy Beatrice. A beautiful score and lush Tuscan settings capture the romance of Much Ado, but flat and mannered performances from Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Keanu Reeves as Don John and Michael Keaton as Dogberry kill much of the play’s tension and almost all of its laughs. Finally, Branagh’s Much Ado is a decent film of a minor comedy, significant chiefly for bringing a previously unfilmed play to the screen: a serviceable romance, but neither good comedy nor particularly distinguished Shakespeare.

Actor-director Branagh’s choice of Much Ado must have been at least partially determined by a desire to play Benedick opposite his then-wife Thompson’s Beatrice. Given a quest for balanced romantic leads in the comedies, he was limited to either the rambunctious comedy of Shrew or the witty banter of Much Ado. Nunn, a director with no ambitions to act in his film, had no such constraints, and his choice was nothing if not ambitious. Twelfth Night, the last of Shakespeare’s high comedies, is also the most complex and difficult to cast. There are ten major roles, none of which can truly be called the lead. Viola is the play’s heart, but Sir Toby is its engine and speaks the greatest number of its lines. Malvolio and Olivia must be skilled both in farce and in tragedy, and Feste must be singer, clown and mimic, while both Toby and Andrew must be skilled physical comedians as well as competent swordsmen. Sebastian and Antonio also fight, and Orsino, Sebastian, Olivia and Viola speak variously in prose, verse and rhymed verse, often jumping between the three in the course of a single scene. The cast Nunn assembles to tackle all this is an achievement by itself, ranging as it does from A-list movie stars Ben Kingsley and Helena Bonham Carter, to art-house regulars Imelda Staunton, Nigel Hawthorne, and Richard E. Grant, to British repertory actors Mel Smith, Toby Stevens and Imogen Stubbs.

Like dozens of directors before and since, Nunn reverses the first two scenes of the play, beginning not with Orsino’s monologue, but with the shipwreck which separates Viola and Sebastian and casts them up at different points along the Illyrian coastline. The film actually opens with a disembodied voice (Ben Kingsley as Feste) singing an extra-textual first verse of “The Wind and the Rain.” The same voice then narrates the shipwreck. The narration is thankfully sparse, couched as it is in some not particularly distinguished blank verse which Nunn probably wrote himself, but the wreck as shot demonstrates both Nunn’s appreciation of the difficulties involved in filming Twelfth Night, and the boldness with which he intends to tackle them.

Twelfth Night as written has two narratives which wind together throughout the play: a main plot, the love triangle between Orsino, Olivia and the disguised Viola, and a sub-plot, the conflict between Malvolio and Toby. In the first two scenes of the play, we are introduced to the four protagonists of the main plot, two of whom we see, and two of whom are described at some length. To further confuse the issue, the most practical and approachable character in the first two scenes—the person towards whom we gravitate and from whom we hope to hear more—is an attractive young woman in a bedraggled dress whom we may not recognize when next we see her, since she’ll be disguised as a man. In the following three scenes we finally see Olivia, about whom we have heard so much, and we are introduced to five brand new characters whose interaction makes up the sub plot. In the play’s sixth scene we finally meet Viola’s brother Sebastian, about whom we have heard, in the company of a brand new character about whom we know nothing at all. So the question facing a director of a filmed Twelfth Night: what resources does my chosen medium give me to simplify my audience’s introduction to this bewildering array of characters? Nunn’s answer is the shipwreck.

He begins the sequence with a costume party below decks at which two attractive young women—twins—in veils and black wigs sing a chorus of the song “Oh Mistress Mine” while one of them accompanies the song on an upright piano. At the line “That can sing both high and low...” a stray baritone note creeps into the proceedings. The two young women stare at each other, then one reaches up and tears the veil of her sister’s face, uncovering a small moustache. The mustached sister, now revealed as a brother, tears the veil off his sister’s face, discovering that she has a moustache too. The camera picks out faces in the audience, including a round-face older man with white whiskers, roaring with laughter at the double act; all except for one handsome man in a naval uniform at the back, who looks pensively out the window at the thickening storm. The first brother then peels the moustache off his brother/sister’s lip, and just as the newly revealed sister reaches towards her brother’s moustache, the cabin lurches, the white-whiskered man jams a captain’s hat on his head and lunges for a companion ladder, and all hell breaks loose. The camera cuts frantically between the sailors dodging falling masts on deck of the ship and the twins’ cabin, where brother and sister huddle together stuffing their belongings, cabinet pictures, make-up etc. into bags. Shouting and crashing send the twins up on deck, where the sister looses her footing and plunges into the sea. The handsome man we saw at the window tries to restrain the brother, but he plunges in after her. We then see the twins under water, as they cling to one another until the sea and would-be rescuers pull them apart. The sister is dragged into a life boat by the white-whiskered captain, and she watches helpless as her brother disappears beneath a wave.

This sequences allows Nunn to reverse the introduction process of Shakespeare’s I, ii. We have now seen, and our emotions have been engaged on behalf of, both Viola and Sebastian, even though we know neither of their names. We’ve also been introduced both to the captain of the ship, who rescues Viola, and we’ve seen Antonio, Sebastian’s savior. His presence at Sebastian’s side in the scene which corresponds to Shakespeare’s II, i, will not come as a complete surprise. Nunn then brings us to the beach for the beginning of Shakespeare’s I, ii. He doesn’t cut the scene entirely, but he does fragment it, giving the captain some lines of Antonio from III, iii with which to introduce a mostly extra-textual merchants’ conflict. This is Nunn’s way of front loading both Antonio’s conflict with Orsino and the captain’s ultimate arrest by Malvolio. It also allows the director to introduce a uniformed cavalry patrol which chases Viola and the sailors off the beach and into the hills.

The film’s detractors, and there are a fair few of them, rail against this sequence in particular. They refer to the extraordinary economy with which Shakespeare introduces his characters and point to a 1987 television production, directed by Branagh, which simply records the scene as written. It’s worked for something like 400 years, goes the cry. What makes Trevor Nunn think he can do any better? I’ll spare you my opinion of self-stylized Shakespearean purists and their frantic and futile pursuit of some unknowable “authorial intent,” but I will address their most persuasive point. Twelfth Night was written to be performed in a theatre in front of an audience who were accustomed to absorbing theatrical information through their ears rather than their eyes. In stage productions, I am myself impatient with directors who invert the order of the first two scenes for no other reason than that they fear their audience is too moronic to deal with a second and more central character—Viola—after being introduced to the preoccupations of the more peripheral Orsino. By contrast film is a visual medium, a fact that bears constant repetition when you’re working with four-hundred year old source material. A collection of inert figures talking is a less efficient way of putting across exposition on camera, because it is counter to the way in which movie audiences absorb information, through the eyes. Nunn has done, with his opening sequence, exactly what Shakespeare presumably intended to do with his: he has drawn his audience into the story of a group of characters by engaging both our curiosity and our compassion. Now, as a veteran of six productions of Twelfth Night, I do not absolutely require Nunn’s shipwreck sequence for narrative clarity. I know who everybody is, and I won’t be taken out of things when, six scenes into a filmed version of the play as written, two new characters show up, one of whom looks a lot like Viola. However, Nunn’s opening draws me into the story far more quickly and efficiently than any production I’ve ever seen. The purists would no doubt contend that I have yet to see the right production, that Nunn has somehow cheated, as Polanski, Zeffirelli and Olivier did before him, by introducing extra-textual content, or by cutting counter to the structure of the verse. These kinds of squabbles invariably degenerate into entirely subjective intellectual shoving matches. The truth of the matter is that the plays are not that fragile. They’re not museum pieces to be mounted in pristine condition and never afterwards touched. Trevor Nunn’s film of Twelfth Night does not prevent another director from filming every word of the Folio text, and the play will endure long after both Nunn and his detractors are gone.

To return to the nuts and bolts of the film, Cornwall, where Twelfth Night was shot, is not many miles from Snowdonia in Wales, where Polanski shot his Macbeth. Here too is a rugged coastline, here too is woodland—ash rather than pine, and if there are no jagged mountains, there are wind-swept cliffs overlooking a grey sea. Like Polanski, Nunn allows the beauty of his locations to inform the story of the film, but where Polanski’s actors occupy the bottom and sides of his masters, small and marginalized against the grandeur of the indifferent landscape, Nunn tends to shoot his people from the waist up, allowing them to dominate the frame. Man is very much the master of these surroundings. Indeed the ferocity and violence of the opening storm at sea, make the still and barren coastline seem peaceful by comparison. And presiding over this tranquility, we have Feste sitting atop a cliff, looking down, God-like, as Viola and the sailors seek shelter from Orsino’s cavalry in a cavern on the sand. Then there is Olivia’s stately home against which and within which much of the film takes place: a 19th century stone mansion surrounded by gardens and cultivated parkland. It begins the film as a dark and somewhat severe place, its mistress given over to mourning and its management in the hands of a humorless and punctilious steward. Then, as Olivia, and to a lesser extent Malvolio, thaws, drapes are pulled aside, windows are thrown open, and light and color enter and animate the place lending it a beauty to offset its gravity. Where Polanski’s Wales made humanity itself of no account, Nunn’s Cornwall makes its inhabitants’ troubles seem trivial. This Illyria is a utopia born of a romance, where the dead can rise again, where love takes no account of gender, and from which, in a bittersweet extension of Aristotelian comic logic, those who fail to find love—or who fail to find it in time: “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”—must finally depart. And most of the cast does so over the end credits, leaving Orsino and Viola, and Olivia and Sebastian free to marry and have children in an idyll untroubled by drunken cousins, lovesick stewards, or even loyal friends: handsome, troubled Antonio—a heartbreaking performance by Nicholas Farrell—does not stay to compete for Sebastian’s affections with Helena Bonham Carter’s radiant Olivia.

Finally, a word about the extraordinary cast which Nunn assembled to populate his 19th century sea-side Shangri-La. Of all the challenges facing the director of a film of Twelfth Night, none can have been as daunting as the realization that he needed the dramatic equivalent of eleven concert masters content to play in almost continual harmony. Olivier had several excellent actors in his Henry V—Robert Newton, Max Adrian, Leo Genn—none of whom had any real effect on the final product. Henry V belongs to Henry. To extend the music metaphor, he sings the melody, and if the harmony is played too skillfully, it can detract from the central theme of the piece. Branagh’s film of the same play occasionally suffers from exactly that problem. It was both generous and bold of him to cast Paul Scofield, Ian Holm and Judi Dench, but watching that film I found myself wishing for more from the King of France, Fluellen and Mistress Quickly and less from Henry. By contrast, the director of Twelfth Night cannot relax once he’s cast his Viola, Olivia and Malvolio. Great stretches of the play belong to Toby, Andrew, Maria and Feste. The ending of the play can’t work without an excellent Sebastian. And even Fabian helps to drive several vital scenes in the second half of the play.

Trevor Nunn has always had an amazing eye for actors. By this I mean less that he can spot raw talent—I’m sure he can—than that he understands how a given actor’s abilities will suit both the demands of an individual role and that role’s position in the context of a given production. Witness his Antony and Cleopatra, in which Corin Redgrave’s ice cold affect and precise tenor voice made the audience at once more sympathetic to and more frustrated with Richard Johnson’s warm-hearted, ranting, baritone Antony. Consider also his discovery of opera singer Willard White as an Othello who could wrest the play away from Ian McKellen’s superb Iago; or his transformation of the young, earnest, and comical Roger Rees into an intelligent, manipulative, and politically savvy Macolm in the RSC’s 1974 Macbeth. So in assembling his Twelfth Night actors, Nunn never loses sight of the fact that he’s casting a comedy, but that the laughs in the play are more often situational, or even psychological, rather than language driven. To clarify: we laugh at Beatrice and Benedick because they say funny things. But we laugh at Malvolio because he has reached late middle age—in Nigel Hawthorne’s remarkable performance—without a working definition of happiness. We laugh at Andrew because he just doesn’t get it, whatever “it” may be. And we laugh at Olivia because we were all once young enough for our every emotional state to have a profound, not to say life-altering significance, until the next one came along. These are not simple pie-in-the-face laughs, and every one of them depends upon the life experience of each individual audience member. A recovering alcoholic will respond differently to Sir Toby than a fifteen-year-old prep-school student, but Twelfth Night is a comedy, and ideally both should respond, at least part of the time, by laughing.

So Nunn has to find at least eleven top-drawer film actors, all of whom have the courage to look ridiculous and the restraint not to sacrifice psychological credibility in pursuit of the cheap laugh. Watch the way the movie is cut and you’ll marvel at how hard his cast works, and how effortless they make it all look. A given scene might begin in two-shot, open up to a master, and thereafter bounce between the two, augmented with close coverage of everybody from principals to featured extras. I could easily double the length of these recommendations praising individual performances, but I’ll content myself with a few observations on Nigel Hawthorne’s magnificent Malvolio and Helena Bonham Carter’s enchanting Olivia.

Casting an ingénue as Olivia is a relatively new development in the production history of Twelfth Night. Up until the second half of the 20th century, the role was cast for gravitas, often with a middle aged actress. Then in 1958, Peter Hall apparently took a second look at Feste’s admonitions to his mistress—“Beauty’s a flower.” “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”—and at Olivia’s declared intention to mourn for seven years, and decided that she should be at once young enough to make that kind of emotional and impulsive vow and old enough to imperil her marriage prospects if she keeps it. He cast 20 year-old Geraldine McEwan in his 1958 Stratford Memorial Theatre production, and kept her on when he remounted the production two years later in the RSC’s inaugural season. The production was a hit in both iterations, and from that point onward, Olivia was an ingénue, and often rather a silly one, throwing herself at the appalled Cesario in paroxysms of hormonal ecstasy, and melodramatically horrified by Malvolio’s clumsy advances. The glory in Bonham Carter’s performance lies in her exploitation of the tension between Olivia’s public and private personas. And Nunn brings a film-maker’s resources to bear in supporting her.

In Shakespeare’s play, Olivia receives quite a build up. She’s mentioned in each of the first four scenes, but doesn’t appear until the fifth, when she’s confronted by Feste. Nunn provides Bonham Carter with two extra textual, public appearances before she speaks. Viola sees her escorting her brother’s coffin in Nunn’s fragmented I, ii, and a few scenes later, Nunn inserts a sequence of Olivia attending Mass between Feste and Maria’s initial dialogue in I, v and her—Olivia’s—actual appearance later in the scene. In both cases, the diminutive Bonham Carter is all in black and heavily veiled. She is constantly surrounded by at least half-a-dozen attendants of both sexes, with Nigel Hawthorne’s Malvolio hovering protectively just behind her. Her face, what we can see of it, is grief stricken but resolute. She is now the mistress of a great house and estate upon which dozens of people depend for life and livelihood. Her intelligence and her will are equal to the task, although the heaviness of her movements and the pallor of her complexion make us wonder if she has the physical strength.

Nunn stages what would be her initial appearance in the play on the steps of the church. Feste greets her, and after a pause to register his presence, she takes Maria’s arm and blows past him as if he were some anonymous beggar. He follows, excusing his “dishonesty,” dividing his explanation between her back and the pack of attendants as she stalks across a hedged garden, and finally catches her and faces her with his offer to “prove you a fool.” A half completed gesture and a resolute frown suggest that she agrees primarily to be rid of him, and he courts real danger when he lifts her veil on “I must catechize you for it...” It’s the first we see of Bonham Carter’s beautiful, pale face, and her expression is set and miserable. His punch line gets the barest half-smile from her, but her face softens, and she invites Malvolio to share in the joke. Nunn keeps her in a two shot with Malvolio, and we see her disappointment at the malice of his reply. After leaning confidingly close to her steward to admonish him for being “sick of self love,” she steps to Feste, laying a hand on his chest as she defends him to Malvolio and Malvolio to him, her whole person a reproach to both men, as if to say: ‘Don’t I have enough to deal with without two of my oldest and most familiar companions clawing at each other?’ In the next moment, Maria announces the arrival of an embassy, and Olivia, catching sight of the uniformed soldiers at her gate, darts back to Malvolio’s side taking his arm and whispering “From the Count Orsino, is it?” as if her intimacy with the scruffy Feste might somehow compromise her gravity. In that moment, years fall away from her, and she seems desperately vulnerable. She quickly and efficiently dispatches Malvolio to deal with the intruders, maintaining her dignity until he’s out of sight. Only then does she signal for Feste to follow her inside. As he unpins her veil in front of a mirror, she maintains the “great lady” pretense for a single line before falling into his arms and sobbing against his chest. Toby’s drunken passage into and out of the room puts her back on her dignity for the duration of their scene, and then, as the door shuts after him, she plops down on the couch laughing, a quick release of tension in the presence of an old friend—Feste—before a wan expression creeps back into her eyes as she realizes that she has to manage her drunken cousin as well as everything else. A couple more stolen moments with Feste, then she sends him off to look after Toby, and picks up a newspaper with a sigh.

The sequence—six minutes, if that—is astonishing both for the amount of information it conveys and for the amount of pleasure it gives. We laugh out loud not at Feste’s tired little paradox, but at the effect it has on Olivia. Having seen her smile, we want nothing more than to see her laugh, and when she finally does it, we laugh with her, not at Toby’s drunken excesses, but at skill with which this tired and put-upon young woman manages to endure a day which has degenerated into a succession of one damn thing after another. Bonham Carter’s transitions are seamless and lightning fast. Her public persona is almost perfect. The actress has both gravitas and aristocratic beauty enough to carry it off. And her struggle to maintain it takes us through a gamut of emotions usually reserved for Chekhovian stage directions. Fortunately for her audience, we have the rest of the film to watch it fall away, revealing a vibrant, charming and mischievous beauty. And we don’t give a second thought to her marriage to a man whose twin she’s spent the film wooing. If anybody can make a success of such a preposterous proposition, this Olivia can.

Nunn’s camera is Bonham Carter’s staunch ally in this performance. He leaves her in two shots and groups for most of the early part of the movie, which paradoxically emphasizes her isolation. When she does interact with other characters, Feste, Malvolio, Maria, she touches lapels, and sleeves as if constantly seeking connection to mitigate her loneliness. When, later in the film, Cesario pushes her hands away, Nunn leaves Bonham Carter alone in the frame, bewildered and isolated, denied even the casual contact which is second nature to her. His method of shooting Nigel Hawthorne’s Malvolio is equally idiosyncratic but totally different.

Although he spent many years in the theatre, including a stint with the National in the late 60s and early 70s, Hawthorne came to public prominence on the British sit-com Yes, Minister, and there is about his Malvolio the on-camera ease and playfulness of the professional funny man. Physically, Hawthorne is of middle height and neither particularly thin nor fat. His face is unremarkable, but there is intelligence and whimsy behind his eyes, and he is frequently compared, both in style of performance and in types of roles played, to Ralph Richardson. Nunn’s camera seeks out that face, paradoxically coming closest in Malvolio’s most extreme moments. It’s a risky choice, but it pays off beautifully, providing the audience a compelling psychological portrait of a man so governed by rigid notions of propriety that he is no longer physiologically capable of spontaneity. The performance is Richardsonian in its weirdness. It shouldn’t work, but it does precisely because Nunn allows his camera’s lens to study it so closely.

Emblematic of Hawthorne’s Malvolio is a bit stolen from John Barton’s 1969 RSC Twelfth Night. Taking an afternoon constitutional in the garden, the steward stops by a sundial, checks his watch against it, and then adjusts the sundial. For Hawthorne, the bit is almost an afterthought. He doesn’t, for example, trouble to recheck the newly adjusted sundial. Minutiae are in his blood. He’s never seen a forest, but knows every tree by family, genus and species. He also constantly adjusts a rigidly pomaded toupee. It’s an excellent rug, and you might almost forget that it is a rug, except that he keeps adjusting the damn thing. He is competent, but never comfortable, at his ease only when there is a proscribed position for his body and his face, as when, early in the film, we see him at prayer, on his knees in church, his hands clasped beneath his chin. But then Olivia rises and leaves. He pulls himself to his feet to follow, then turns towards the altar, offering a stiff little bow to the Lord, as if unsure of the appropriate depth.

When this man is confronted with the potential fulfillment of both his political and sexual fantasies, his attempts to police his physical responses according to his imperfect understanding of how a man in love should behave are both hysterical and terrifying. Nunn has him in close up at the end of Shakespeare’s II, v, when he resolves to obey a written command to smile. The muscles of his face quiver and jerk as his features resolve themselves into a strangely toothy grin. A standard choice here is for Malvolio to try smiling as if he’s never done it before. It can become quite the protracted bit. For Hawthorne’s Malvolio, it’s another throw-away. He’s smiled before, but it’s been a while, and it requires a conscious act to re-engage the muscles.

Perhaps the strangest and most compelling sequence corresponds to Shakespeare’s III, iv, in which Malvolio comes to Olivia dressed in the yellow stockings and cross garters he assumes she wants him to wear. Again Nunn begins with an extreme close up of Hawthorne’s face as he peeks tentatively through a door he has just opened. The smile muscles twitch slightly as if, in the agitation occasioned by her presence, he’s half-forgotten his instructions. She invites him in and he flattens himself against the wall. On Shakespeare’s line “Sweet Lady, ho, ho,” Nunn has Hawthorne framed from just below his neck. The smile leaps onto his face and instead of vocalizing the “ho, ho” his head jerks back and forth and back: three quick movements intended to convey we’re not quite sure what—insouciance perhaps? As he advances into the room, the camera pulls back to reveal him in a dressing gown, his legs hidden behind a divan. He’s fiddling with the belt, unsure of his moment. The line “It did come to his hand...” is accompanied by a wink so pronounced it’s almost aggressive, perhaps something else Malvolio hasn’t done for a while. The belt comes off and the stockings are revealed on “Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs...” and he advances on Olivia, hands holding the dressing gown open behind his back, with a strange dancerly gate, the better to show off the stockings. He kneels before her into a tight two-shot, accompanies the line “I think we do know the sweet Roman hand.” with a slow pantomime of cursive writing, and takes her hand to kiss it. In another actor, all this could appear to be the grossest indicating, but Hawthorne has laid his foundation brilliantly. Nigel Hawthorne isn’t a bad actor, Malvolio is, and Malvolio’s performance is at once laugh-out-loud funny and excruciating. Olivia then removes her hand from his, and he leans his face forward, eyes closed, anticipating a kiss. But she lays the back of her hand against his forehead, feeling for fever, and asks “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” The culmination of Nunn’s study of Hawthorne’s face occurs with his reaction to this line. It’s very quick, but if you look closely, you can see the question momentarily fry his brain. His face goes slack, and just before his mouth falls open, he regains control of his lips to say “To bed? Ay, sweetheart, and I’ll come to thee.” accompanied by a roll of his eyes almost as gross as the wink and a raised finger to direct her to his bedroom. As she rises appalled, his features resolve themselves into an anticipatory grin, and they’re in a wider two shot, when Maria walks in and distracts Olivia just long enough for Malvolio to get his hands onto her elbows whence they leap almost immediately to her waist. (This may actually be a continuity screw up. His hands go from elbows to waist in the cut to the reverse angle, and we never see them move.) His hands grope inexpertly at her forearms before he embraces her at some point slightly north of her waist and south of her bosom, and with the awkwardness of this embrace, an earlier moment snaps into focus. In the scene in which he discovers the letter, he sits to read it in an artificial grotto pebbled with seashells and surrounding a statue of Venus rising naked from the sea to which Malvolio addresses some of his earlier musings about the M.O.A.I. poem. He crosses behind the statue to read the majority of the letter, but as he understands its import, he comes around to the front of the statue and addresses “Daylight and champian discovers not more...” to her naked belly. Improbably he embraces the statue on the line “I will baffle Sir Toby...” and it’s rather an odd embrace: his hands grasp the haunches of the statue, as if cupping the bare buttocks of the thing would be somehow less seemly, and he presses his cheek against a fold in the marble belly perhaps six inches below the breasts. But as we watch him grapple with Olivia, we realize that in the earlier scene, having reached the conclusion that he might actually be required to embrace his mistress, he was practicing. And of course her forearms get in his way because the stature, like the Venus de Milo, has no arms.

For Nunn, as for Einstein, God is in the details, and it’s his attention to detail, of setting, of blocking, and most importantly of character that makes his Twelfth Night such a wonderful film. After all, Shakespeare’s comedies deal with the transformative power of love, and the more detailed that process appears, the richer will be the audience’s experience of the story. And then too, Nunn’s meticulous story telling seems to involve most of the best artistic impulses that have gone into the previous 97 years of Shakespearean film making. Here are something like half a dozen stars working together with the precision of a world class ensemble. Here are radical and effective cuts and transpositions juxtaposed with clarity of expression, confidence in the language, and emotional credibility. Here is text work worthy of Olivier, camera work worthy of Mankiewicz, Zeffirelli’s eye for detail, and Polanski’s feel for location, all in the service of one of the most perfect plays ever written. I could go on, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a book. To my mind Shakespearean film making culminates in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night. For now.

Final Thoughts and Supplementary Recommendations

As I’ve said repeatedly in the last five parts, these are my five favorite Shakespearean films, but they do not by any means contain all that is good in the genre. And of course the fact that they’re my favorites means only that. Other people will compile Top-5 lists without a single one of these films on them. Here follows a short list of some additional films and television productions worth the watching.

Richard III directed by Laurence Olivier: Brilliant performances by Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, Alec Clunes and Claire Bloom. (DVD)

Othello directed by Orson Welles: Shakespeare on a budget. Atmosphere and imagery as or more compelling than most of the performances. (DVD)

Hamlet directed by Tony Richardson: Abrasive central performance by Nichol Williamson, and truly perverse dramaturgy. Compelling claustrophobic camera work. (DVD-PAL)

King Lear directed by Peter Brook: Grim, tough and thought-provoking, based on Brook’s 1962 RSC production. Fearless work by Scofield as Lear, Tom Flemming as Kent, and Irene Worth as Goneril. (DVD-PAL)

The Tempest directed by Derek Jarman: Excellent, if fragmented, film. Observes the spirit, if not the structure of the original better than any other filmed Tempest. (DVD)

Prospero’s Book directed by Peter Greenway: Some exquisite and disturbing visuals, and the mature John Gielgud narrating almost the entire play. (DVD)

Titus directed by Julie Taymor: Unevenly acted but lavishly and originally conceived visuals. And of course the only big screen Titus Andronicus. (DVD)

Henry V directed by Kenneth Branagh: Amazing individual performances by Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Geraldine McEwan, Emma Thompson, etc. (DVD)

Much Ado about Nothing directed by Kenneth Branagh: Emma Thompson’s Beatrice. (DVD)

Hamlet directed by Kenneth Branagh: Demonstrates the pros and cons of filming uncut Shakespeare. Some excellent performances. Some embarrassments. (DVD)

Hamlet directed by Franco Zeffirelli: Deeply cut text doesn’t preclude excellent character work from Gibson’s Hamlet, Bonham Carter’s Ophelia and especially Paul Scofield’s Ghost. Beautifully shot as well. (DVD)

Chimes at Midnight directed by Orson Welles: Something of a mess, narrative-wise, but lovely performances from Welles and Gielgud as Henry IV. (DVD)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Peter Hall: Misconceived, but fascinating to watch Dench, Holm, Ian Richardson, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, David Warner, Paul Rogers, Derek Godfrey, Sebastian Shaw, Michael Jayston etc.

Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann: Indifferently acted except for Claire Danes and Pete Postlethwaite, but compelling and consistent updating. (DVD)


BBC Hamlet with Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Claire Bloom: Despite some dull performances and sound-stage scenery, the most compelling performance of the title role I’ve ever seen given. (DVD-PAL)

BBC Richard II with Derek Jacobi and Jon Finch: Jacobi is excellent as the King and Polanski’s Macbeth makes a world-class Bollingbroke. Finch continues as Henry in the Henry IV plays. Part 1 is primarily notable for Finch, Anthony Quayle’s magnificent Falstaff, and Tim Piggot Smith’s Hotspur; Part 2 for Finch and Quayle.

BBC King Lear with Michael Hordern: Idiosyncratic central performance from Hordern with strong support from Norman Rodway, John Shrapnel, and Frank Middlemass. (DVD)

BBC Merry Wives of Windsor with Richard Griffiths, Ben Kingsley, and Judy Davis: Dark and dysfunctional production: Short on laughs but novel in its approach.

Othello directed by Trevor Nunn with Willard White, Ian McKellen, Imogen Stubbs and Zoe Wanamaker: Best and most balanced Othello I’ve ever seen. (DVD)

Antony and Cleopatra directed by Trevor Nunn with Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman, Patrick Stewart and Corin Redgrave: Excellent central performances, and creative use of limited sets and props.

King Lear directed by Richard Eyre with Ian Holm: Filmed record of my favorite Lear. Badly mishandled storm sequence, but otherwise well worth the look. (DVD)

Addendum, 2011:

Since completing this essay, I have had two excellent experiences of a new hybrid form—the simulcast—of which I make no mention in this essay, and which have already caused me to reconsider some of my ideas about the efficacy of filming stage productions. Since, as I said at the outset, this essay grew out of a specific request made at a specific time, I have elected not to do a radical revision, but to allow the essay to reflect my thoughts at the time the request was made.

This concludes our five-part series on Shakespeare in Film.



Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 4)

Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 4)

This is the third part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read the Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

4. Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski

Given the number of Shakespearean films made by great men of the theatre, particularly in my self-styled “Golden Age of Director’s Shakespeare,” it may seem perverse in me to pass over Orson Welles’ 1966 Chimes at Midnight with John Gielgud’s chilly Henry IV and Welles’ own magnificent Falstaff, Peter Hall’s 1967 Midsummer Night’s Dream with Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, and most of the rest of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1960s stable, and Peter Brook’s 1971 King Lear with Paul Scofield, based on the director’s own pitiless stage production which redefined the play as it toured the world, in favor of two films, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Polanski’s Macbeth, made by men who would cheerfully have reversed the dictum I ascribed to Olivier. Neither man considers himself primarily, nor even secondarily, a Shakespearean, and both are much more concerned with what Shakespeare can do for film than with what film can do for Shakespeare. And yet these two films keep faith with the material upon which they are based to a far greater extent than anything filmed by Welles, Brook, Hall or even Olivier.

Now this last sentence begs a question which has occupied both theatre professionals and performance historians since England’s theatres reopened in 1660: to what extent is fidelity to the spirit, or even to the letter, of an author’s wishes to be considered a virtue? For the purposes of these recommendations, I offer the following answer. I consider the finest those films which offer me the kind of immersive experience that I have in the best theatrical productions of Shakespeare. If I can lose myself in a story the ending of which I know, if I am not troubled by the excellence of one actor’s performance compared with the mediocrity of another’s (Olivier’s Hamlet,) if I am not called upon to admire prodigious feats of technical film-making (Chimes at Midnight,) if I am not intrigued as I am watching by a tension between the vision of the director and that of the playwright (Brook’s Lear,) then I consider that I’ve seen a truly magnificent Shakespearean film. This is not to say that some of the films left off this list do not record world class Shakespeare. A few of them are even terrific movies, and more than a few of them contain revelatory performances, but my preference—and it is, finally, an individual preference—has always been for the whole experience of a play. And while my favorite theatrical productions of Shakespeare contain a few star performances—Derek Jacobi in Terry Hands's 1983 Much Ado and Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s 1997 King Lear—most are ensemble driven: John Hirsch’s 1985 Twelfth Night, Richard Monette’s 1990 As You Like It, Robert Belinger’s 1988 Timon of Athens, and Jack O’Brien’s 1983 Macbeth. These casts included any number of excellent actors—Anthony Zerbe, Jonathan McMurtry, Seanna McKenna, Nicholas Pennell, Lucy Peacock, Tony Amendola—none of whom would be considered stars under the meaning of the act. The great Shakespeare films therefore have, to my way of thinking, an alchemy which transcends the brilliance—or lack thereof—of individual actors, directors, and cinematographers to unlock some part of the magic contained in the original play. With this definition in mind, I pass to Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, a film I find so compelling that I can lose myself in the experience of it, despite the fact that I disagree with Polanski’s approach to its protagonist.

It’s tempting to find some larger sociological reason for the 1971 release of the three grimmest films in the history of cinematic Shakespeare. Kozintsev’s bleakly political Korol Lir loads poverty and overpopulation upon the miseries besetting the mad monarch, while Peter Brook’s film of his 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production, filmed entirely in the arctic vastness of northern Lapland, adds a cold, physical emptiness to the existential meaninglessness of Brook’s original approach, through which Scofield’s monolithic King shambles like a walking corpse. Add Polanski’s Macbeth to these two light-hearted comedies, and one finds oneself combing newspaper archives for some event more immediately apocalyptic than the relentless conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia to account for what looks like the most profound period of cultural despair in the West since 1918. But while 1971 certainly had its share of bad news, the bleakness of Roman Polanski’s outlook on life was almost certainly autobiographical. Two years earlier, Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child, was murdered by members of the Manson “family.” Polanski himself was 12 when his mother died in Auschwitz, so the man necessarily has a very personal and intimate relationship with evil.

His Macbeth film owes almost as much to Sophocles as it does to Shakespeare. Evil is as immediately present as any of Duncan’s Thanes, and while individual characters—Macduff, Banquo, Macbeth himself—muse about what might come of resisting its influence, not a one of them has the strength of purpose to do it. Macbeth’s murder of Duncan is as predestined as Oedipus’ of Laius, and the casting of an unknown young actor, the handsome and taciturn Jon Finch, reinforces the point. Macbeth is neither more imaginative nor more violent than his fellow Thanes, only somewhat chattier. And since Polanski doesn’t conceive of Macbeth as a star, he doesn’t cast a star to play him. Indeed for a Shakespeare film made with an English cast in the early 1970s and shot on location in Wales, the company is remarkably star-free. In fact the most distinctive piece of casting is the young, and at the time unknown, Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth. In her long blonde wig with her prominent eyebrows, large eyes and full mouth, Annis looks a lot like Sharon Tate.

Parenthetically, this take on the play makes an interesting comparison to Trevor Nunn’s 1974 approach, filmed for television in 1979 with Ian McKellen as Macbeth. Although he didn’t then have the kind of international recognition his career in the movies would bring him later, McKellen was, in 1974, very much the star of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as an established West End performer. Nunn surrounded him with an extraordinary cast including several current and future RSC leading players: Judi Dench, John Woodvine, Bob Peck, Roger Rees, Ian McDiarmid, and Greg Hicks, to name a few. He and McKellen certainly did conceive of Macbeth as a star, and McKellen’s performance, outsized, almost broad, separates him from the world of the play as established by an otherwise understated and naturalistic cast. The production is considered one of the two most significant and successful 20th century productions of the play—the other being Glen Byam Shaw’s 1955 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with Olivier as Macbeth—but I find the disconnect between McKellen and the rest of the cast jarring. I am aware of his prowess as a performer, but I’m never allowed to forget that I’m watching McKellen. He gets in the way of his performance in a way that Dench, Woodvine, Peck and Rees manage to avoid. By contrast, Polanski’s use of an entirely unknown cast prevents Jon Finch from establishing the imaginative individuality which I believe Macbeth possesses. At the same time, however, this de-emphasis on Macbeth’s eloquent and all-consuming pessimism makes it easier both to identify the arc of his progress through the story, and to identify and sympathize with the character as a human being. Polanski’s Macbeth is a short and bloody chapter in man’s endless, causeless and malignant quest for power. And the title character does to Duncan exactly what Duncan did to his predecessor. And the final image of the film shows Donalbain seeking out the witches' cavern by the sea, clearly intent upon doing to Malcolm what Malcolm and Macduff have just done to Macbeth.

My personal feelings about Macbeth’s character to one side, Polanski makes an eloquent and compelling case for Macbeth’s role as a featureless cog in what Jan Kott described as “the machine of history.” Like Brook in both his stage and film versions of King Lear, Polanski exorcises or perverts many of the play’s nobler impulses. This is particularly striking in his treatment of Ross, played by John Stride, Judi Dench’s Romeo in Zeffirelli’s 1961 Old Vic production. In the production history of the play, Ross is most often conceived of as a good-hearted, intelligent, and trusted member of Duncan’s inner circle. At the King’s behest, he brings Macbeth word that Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor, and after Duncan’s murder, when Macduff resolves to absent himself from Macbeth’s coronation, Ross agrees to attend despite his cousin’s all but explicit accusation of the King-to-be. He is present to witness Macbeth’s response to Banquo’s ghost, and he is frequently given the fiercely partisan Lord’s lines in III, vi. He attempts to warn Lady Macduff of her imminent danger, and brings Macduff word of her murder when he—Ross—joins Malcolm in exile in England. He joins Malcolm in the siege of Dunsinane, and delivers to Old Siward both news of his son’s death in battle and praise for the manner of it. He is present at the end of the play to cheer the announcement of Malcolm’s upcoming coronation. Polanski, presumably struck by the number of deaths Ross finds himself announcing, reinvents him as a plausible sociopath, sadist and political opportunist, content to make himself useful to the king-du-jour, however that king may have come by the throne. Picking up on Shakespeare’s image of the raven as a traditional harbinger of disaster, Polanski dresses the blandly handsome Stride entirely in black. He even retains some of Ross’s more sympathetic impulses, allowing Stride to deliver, in an indifferent parody of sympathy, the news of Lady Macduff’s death to Terence Bayler’s blockish, slightly stupid Macduff, confident in the knowledge that this Thane of Fife is too dense to realize that Ross has himself cut the Lady’s throat.

Polanski also stages the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, a vicious-looking thug of a man who is forced to break his own neck by jumping off a cliff suspended by an iron collar. This he does after snarling “Long live the King!” to an indifferent Duncan. The extra-textual line immediately conjures up both its traditional prequel—“The King is dead!—reminding us that Duncan is, for all intents and purposes, a dead man walking, and the relentlessness of monarchy, and by extension of history. Here again Polanski invites us to consider the impersonal and uncaring false gods for whom king after forgotten king will murder and be murdered in an endless, bloody and pointless cycle.

Finally, there is the landscape itself, as indifferent and deadly as the people it dwarfs. Again we feel the power of Shakespeare’s imagery rendered visually. Macbeth “feel(s) his title / Hang loose about him like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief.” (V, ii) Polanski frames shot after shot to shrink his actors. The witches open the play wandering through a vast expanse of empty beach. Both Finch and Annis are comparatively small, lean actors, and they look positively fragile against the massive crenellations of their castle. Even inanimate objects tend to loom in this film. A massive crown almost doubles the size of Finch’s head, and Macduff finally dispatches Macbeth, not with a sword, but with a huge log of wood. Against the craggy mountains, wide green flatlands, craggy beaches and deep forests of the Welsh countryside, Polanski’s actors seem tiny, and the concerns of the characters they play petty and transient. Nunn’s production merits a final mention here, by way of contrast. His is a very Christian take on the play: a white-robed Duncan blessed by a crosiered bishop; a Christian king slaughtered by a usurper damned both by the deed itself, and by whatever hellish and invisible spirits his terrified wife raises to aid him. But no god, Christian or pagan, ever saw the landscape upon which Polanski sets his Macbeth. Here is a literal representation of life as “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” (V, v.) This landscape took no notice of humanity’s arrival, and will continue in indifferent ignorance long after its eventual departure.

Towards 1989

The Golden Age of Director’s Shakespeare is, of course, my own construct: a convenient label for a transitional period of 20th century British theatre during which a pair of influential national companies arose, one under the leadership of an established leading actor—the National under Olivier—and the other under the leadership of an intellectual and precocious young director—the RSC under Peter Hall. For the first ten years of their existence, these two theatres, with the active participation of established older stars like Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, and of course Olivier himself, trained a generation of younger actors and directors in an ensemble style which would redefine classical theatre for the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. And for almost ten years, it looked as if it might be that simple. That those ten years began in 1960, coinciding with a period of revolutionary political energy and idealism makes my construct a little more appealing, but it also tempts me to strain the metaphor. The idealism of the 60s broke against the continuation of the conflict in Vietnam and Laos, Watergate, nuclear proliferation, the Cold War, and after another ten years, Reagan and Thatcher had come to power, and the English speaking world had taken a turn to the political right. During this same time, both the National and the RSC had grown significantly, and, during the 70s, both sought increased government subsidies from less and less congenial governments. Things were less bad in the United States only because US theatres had never enjoyed any substantial government subsidization to begin with, and the Stratford Ontario Festival somehow managed to buck the trend completely, growing through the 70s into one of Canada’s major cultural treasures, and incidentally continuing to attract international talent, even as both of Britain’s national companies were fighting to stay alive.

As money became tighter, both the RSC and the National became more conservative in their programming, and long-established methods for putting butts in seats began to rear their ugly heads. Ironically but unsurprisingly, Britain’s two national theatres, both founded upon the principals of ensemble, began to clamber for stars. A new generation of leading players arose from all kinds of backgrounds, and while many had been trained in the early ensembles of the very theatres at which they were now headlining, the proliferation of media meant that fewer and fewer performers thought of themselves primarily as classical actors. Meanwhile the stage directors, whose energy and passion had produced a small explosion of Shakespearean films in the late 60s and early 70s, found themselves in demand as established theatre talent, stars in their own right, if you like.

There was also a new toy to play with. As the British film industry became increasingly commercial, and as it became more and more difficult to raise money for high-culture projects, more and more Shakespeare began to appear on television. This trend had begun back in the 1960s when both the National and the RSC realized that televising successful productions made for excellent publicity. Now, in the 70s, as more and more people watched television, advertisers began sponsoring weekly plays, and all of a sudden there was additional money to be made as well. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that, while there were no major English language Shakespeare films made between 1972 and 1989, there were, during the same span, more than 42 televised productions in England alone, including the BBC’s highly uneven complete works project which began in 1979 with Julius Caesar and ended in 1985 with Titus Andronicus.

So if television was any indication, filmed Shakespeare still had an audience as of the mid-80s, although both film and television were increasingly star-driven media. Even the classical theatre could still bring in the odd few shekels if you had a big enough name in the driver’s seat. Witness the RSC’s successful world tour of Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac starring Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius). Here was what looked like a return to the actor-manager paradigm, but that model was now obsolete. The age of the director had advanced Shakespearean production by leaps and bounds, if for no other reason than that there were now, for most major productions, several minds—director, dramaturg, actor, etc.—brought to bear on plays written by one of the mightiest minds in the history of letters. So the 19th century actor-manager had gradually been replaced by what is essentially a creation of the film industry, the star.

Once again, my last assertion has more to do with the neatness of my timeline than the actual truth. There had been excellent publicly-known performers in opera, music halls, and of course theatre well before the 20th century. But the term “star” did come out of the publicity offices of the early studios, and its meaning became more specifically defined as the film industry developed. By the late 20th century, stars were popular and recognizable performers upon whose participation in a given project money could be raised and, hopefully, earned. As movies became more expensive, and the participation of “bankable” stars more vital, A-list actors began producing, and in some cases directing, the films in which they appeared.

Now this had been happening in the theatre since the days of the actor-managers, but the rules had changed significantly, even from Gielgud and Olivier’s forays into West End management in the 30s and 40s. Actor-managers had staged plays with almost exclusive reference to their own performances. Supporting performances, thematic nuances, even narrative consistency were routinely sacrificed to provide the leading player a comfortable and exalted environment in which to speak. By the late 20th century, however, directors were primarily concerned with staging the play, and audiences had come to expect a play, rather than simply a leading performance. These expectations set the bar for commercial success considerably higher than it had been earlier in the century, when the mere presence of popular names—Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, or Lunt and Fontaine, for example—had often been enough to guarantee a certain level of financial return. Since theatre stars, necessarily more vulnerable than their film counterparts since they both made less money themselves and could be counted upon to bring less to a given project, depended for their position upon financial expectations which were in turn based upon public respect and acclaim, few of them chose to risk the potential high profile failure involved in directing themselves in major classical roles. The actor-manager was dead, and his successor, the star of stage and/or screen ceded ultimate control of a project to the director. So in 1989, after a nearly twenty-year hiatus, those who had time to think about such things looked to a partnership between a director and a movie star to introduce the next generation of filmed Shakespeare. They were strangely mistaken.

Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, the film which would usher in the most prolific dozen years of filmed Shakespeare in the history of the genre, combined an ensemble approach with an almost embarrassing emphasis on star casting, and it turned the actor-manager paradigm on its head with a paradox worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan. When, in 1944, Olivier directed and starred in Henry V, he surrounded himself with a cast of unknown theatre actors. When, in 1989, the unknown Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in Henry V, he surrounded himself with the greatest living classical actors of the day. At the same time, no actor since Orson Welles in his 1966 Chimes at Midnight had directed himself in a major Shakespearean film. The result is a wonderful movie and an exciting, if not particularly innovative, take on Henry V. Branagh based the film upon Adrian Noble’s straightforward 1984 RSC production, in which the then 23-year old Branagh had played the title role. And while many of the excellent supporting cast members came out of that production—Brian Blessed’s Exeter, Christopher Ravenscroft’s Mountjoy and Richard Easton’s Constable—many of the most remarkable images in the film—Blessed’s Exeter, looking like a tank in full plate armor, as he delivers Henry’s challenge to the French King, the hanging of Bardolph—also come from Noble’s staging. Then there are a series of Falstaff flashbacks, a lift from Olivier’s film. It’s not that all this doesn’t work, but the film occasionally feels assembled by committee. And, although I would certainly include it in a list of the top ten Shakespeare films, I can’t find a place for Branagh’s Henry V in the top five. Perhaps this is because Branagh’s conception of the title role seems to me too close to Olivier’s, and I find Olivier the more personally magnetic actor. Perhaps it’s because the film sometimes seems held together by its collection of extraordinary performances rather than containing them in a whole greater than the sum of their parts. Perhaps it’s simply that there are five Shakespeare films I like better. My personal prejudices aside, however, Branagh’s Henry V made a decent amount of money, was nominated for three Oscars, one of which it won (Best Costume Design,) and heralded a twelve year period which would include new films of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Richard III, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as major English language films of Much Ado About Nothing, Titus Andronicus, and the crown jewel of the decade, Trevor Nunn’s exquisite Twelfth Night.

Check back next week for part five of this five-part series.


Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 3)

Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 3)

This is the third part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read Part 1 and Part 2.


3. Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Zeffirelli’s 1960 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic made a star of Judi Dench, hitherto a Vic supporting player who had been critically lambasted for her Ophelia two seasons earlier to such an extent that the role had been taken from her on an Old Vic tour to America and given to the older and more established Barbara Jefford. Critics compared Dench unfavorably to Claire Bloom, the reigning Ophelia and Juliet of the 1950s, maintaining that the younger actress couldn’t speak the verse. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of Zeffirelli’s early dicta to Dench and the rest of his Romeo and Juliet cast stipulated that “Verse speakers will be prosecuted.” This is emblematic of Zeffirelli’s approach to Shakespeare: a naturalist’s concern with clarity of narrative and emotional credibility. The tension in Zeffirelli’s Shakespeare arises from the fact that Shakespeare was not, himself, a naturalist. He comes to emotional truth through language. Indeed he had few other tools, hence a balcony separating Romeo and Juliet, since Shakespeare knew—as does anybody who has experienced adolescent ardor—that if there is not some physical impediment between two consenting horny teenagers, there ain’t gonna be any language. Zeffirelli, even in his theatrical Shakespeare, regards language as an impediment to emotional clarity, or at least as a tool to circumvent emotional investment. Paradoxically, for someone whose name is closely associated with the popularization of Shakespeare, Zeffirelli has actually directed only six English-language versions of five of the plays—three theatrical productions and three films. Both his Royal Shakespeare Company Othello—with Gielgud in the title role, and what must that rehearsal hall have been like, if verse speakers were still to be prosecuted?—and his National Theatre Much Ado, the cast of which included Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Frank Finaly, Michael York, Lynn Redgrave and Michael Gambon, are little more than footnotes in the production histories of their respective plays. His films of Shrew and Hamlet are discussed primarily for their cinematography and sometimes, perfunctorily, for the performances of their movie star leads. But with Romeo and Juliet, Zeffirelli’s background in opera, a painterly eye for both color and detail, and a willingness to risk foregoing theatrical technique in his cast in favor of inexperience, youth and beauty all combine to reinvent a play which had, throughout an almost unbroken 400-year performance history, all but forgone the factional violence, momentum, excitement, and generational conflict which provide counterpoint and context for the lyrical duet at its center. No other major play owes, to a single actor or director, the debt which Romeo and Juliet owes to Franco Zeffirelli.

From the first frame of the film, we see Zeffirelli’s mastery of the literal “moving picture.” His Verona is hot, dusty, active and colorful. Merchants, grocers, shoppers and beggars jostle and haggle. Stalls are erected. Fowls are plucked. Sheets are shaken. There is none of the tidiness associated with the cinematic middle ages a la Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. Through the streets of this bustling city state, and the crowds of merchants and housewives in their brown, tan and white homespun, stroll the sons and servants of the nouveau riche: young, arrogant, slim, handsome and gaudily dressed in bright reds, oranges and blues. They wear striped hose and carry weapons: daggers and swords. The initial brawl is protracted, violent, and expensive. We see shops thrown down, bins of fruit upset, and innocent bystanders bloodied. Again the filmic dictum “Show, don’t tell.” By the time Robert Stephens’ Escalus berates the assembled Montagues and Capulets for “civil brawls”—and, having seen the extent of the fighting, how much easier it is to understand that strange phrase both as an oxymoron and as a description of violence so intense as to threaten civilization itself—we have a visceral understanding of the price of violence, in terms of goods destroyed and time lost as well as blood shed. (By the way, it’s tempting to see a subtle dig against the Gielgud/Olivier tradition of beautifully spoken Shakespeare in the casting of Stephens, a protégée of Olivier with a flair for rhetoric, as the ineffectual and vacillating Escalus. His is the first voice, other than the uncredited Olivier himself reciting the opening chorus, we hear at any length, and he comes across, appropriately for the character, as a strident and windy political nullity.)

An obviously deliberate casting coup revealed in the opening brawl is Michael York’s incredibly handsome and youthful Tybalt. York was 25 at the time of shooting. Here is our first glimpse of youth in action, the true heir to the aggressive and moneyed Capulets. He is aristocratic and entitled, violent, intelligent and gorgeous. As he squares off against Bruce Robinson’s equally young but far less handsome Benvolio, he resembles nothing so much as the captain of a high school basketball team—or if you’re English, a popular and athletic Prefect—doling out abuse to the class bookworm. Audience response to him is immediately ambiguous. However stridently a viewer may condemn the bully in him, 90% of men want to be him, while the other 10%, and 90% of the women, want to do him. We even find ourselves excusing his homicidal violence as youthful excess. And, later in the film, we’re outraged along with John McEnery’s Mercutio when Leonard Whiting’s Romeo, equally attractive, but doe-eyed and beautiful rather than virile, tries to make nice rather than fighting him. After all, Tybalt himself has recently demonstrated how a real man declines a challenge. This is exactly the way Tybalt should function dramaturgically, and this is the way Tybalt is most often cast in contemporary productions of the play. An audience should admire the character’s courage, even as they deplore his aggression. They should mourn a handsome, young man cut down before age and wisdom could season the violence and arrogance in him. Look back, however, at Stratford and Old Vic yearbooks from the 50s, and you’ll see men in their late 30s and early 40s with long, straight black-banged wigs and goatees. Watch George Cukor’s 1936 film, and see a handsome middle-aged Basil Rathbone (44 at the time of shooting) sneering theatrically down his long aristocratic nose at Leslie Howard and John Barrymore. This conception of Tybalt, entirely counter to the text as written, has held sway for most of the play’s 400 plus years of existence: a minor villain, conveniently and agreeably dead and forgotten before either protagonist gets into the play’s most beautifully pathetic language. Zeffirelli is most likely the first director to use Tybalt to deepen the tragedy. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are tragic in themselves, but York’s Tybalt, in his youth and his power, adds a generational dimension to the play’s losses, standing for scores of likely young people, with no particular rhetorical gifts to justify a play of their own, cut down by the malice of meaningless grudges and feuds.

Before leaving Zeffirelli’s extraordinary movie, something must be said about the performances of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, 17 and 15 respectively at the time of shooting. Their youth and inexperience is often cited as a reason for dismissing the Zeffirelli film as populist or even Cliff-Notes Shakespeare. Of course this kind of carping hasn’t prevented director after director from replicating the experiment. Cedric Messina, casting the play for the BBC in the late 1970s turned to the 14-year-old Rebecca Saire, who gave a featureless performance in a listless production. And while Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes were far more experienced actors than Whiting and Hussey, neither had done Shakespeare before, and DiCaprio in particular couldn’t make reliable sense of his text. More to the point, Luhrmann’s film, while a remarkably consistent re-imagining of the play, doesn’t have anything like the emotional power of the Zeffirelli. And while Zeffirelli all but excavated the play’s original dramaturgy from centuries of sentiment and pathos, Romeo and Juliet cannot work without some contribution from Romeo and Juliet.

They were both beautiful, and both had that unique beauty only possible in the truly young. Hussey was the slightly more experienced performer—also dramaturgically appropriate—having played one of Vanessa Redgrave’s students in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And they were neither of them stars. I’m trying to make a highly speculative point here, and one which, in the case of Zeffirelli’s film, amounts to an exception that proves a rule. I have worked with directors who, in a failure of imagination, cast an actor for some personal trait which the director feels is integral to a given role. An example from personal experience: I was cast as Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, a role I’ve played several times, as it happens. This particular director was tremendously excited about the actor he’d cast as Andrew Aguecheeck. He kept telling me what a wacky guy—his words—this actor was. And since the director conceived of Andrew primarily as a wacky guy, he assumed the actor he’d cast would be perfect in the part. In my experience, that kind of thinking is an almost foolproof recipe for disaster. And yet; of the four major films of Romeo and Juliet (Cukor, 1936; Renato Castellani, 1954; Zeffirelli, 1967; Luhrmann, 2002,) only Zeffirelli used unknowns for his leads. And there is an innocence to both performances (Whiting’s and Hussey’s) which I expect established stars would find difficult to deliver. They’re soulful; they’re simple. They are, for all intents and purposes, children. And Zeffirelli’s camera treats them with the reverence reserved for the dogs and children with whom veteran performers proverbially never wish to appear. In a paradox which holds true neither for Rebecca Saire nor Leonardo DiCaprio, Whiting and Hussey are moving not because they can play inexperience, but because they are inexperienced. And these improbable performances are the legacy from and the gift to Franco Zeffirelli who fumbled Shrew, flattened Othello, buried Much Ado, and decimated Hamlet, but who rediscovered, both on stage and screen, the passion and the power of Romeo and Juliet.


Check back next week for part four of this five-part series.


Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 2)

Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 2)

This is the second part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read the first part here.


2. Julius Caesar directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Far and away the best American Shakespeare film ever made, the Mankiewicz Caesar combines an attention to language worthy of the Olivier films with the briskly paced, large-scale epic style which the studios would perfect in such films as Ben Hur and Spartacus. The film is also noteworthy for a consistency of both sound and style despite a mixed English and American cast including such different, powerful and idiosyncratic performers as John Gielgud and Marlon Brando. Seen in contrast to Branagh’s uneven Much Ado About Nothing, in which Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, and Michael Keaton sounded flat and tentative next to Emma Thompson, Richard Briers, and Branagh himself, Brando’s Antony, Louis Calhern’s Caesar and Edmond O’Brien’s Casca comfortably share both street and Senate House with Gielgud’s Cassius, James Mason’s Brutus, and Debora Kerr’s Portia. Indeed the American actors—both O’Brien and Calhern spent much of their careers playing thugs and political heavies—bring a latent violence to the proceedings unmatched in British Shakespearean cinema until the anarchic brawl at the beginning of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The Americans embrace both the emotional richness of the text—Brando’s savage “Friends, Romans, Countrymen...”—as well as mining the material for what little humor there is in it: witness Calhern’s waspish distinction between “...what is to be feared...” and “...what I fear...”

The camera work is equally well balanced. Mankiewicz frequently shoots two or three actors from the waist up, but the frame never appears crowded. Contrast this with similar shots in several television productions—the BBC Richard II for example—and you’ll see how easily sets can be made to look both undersized and artificial when too many actors occupy too little space. By the same token, Mankiewicz gives an impression of size without relying either on huge sets or long shots. In that portion of the play which takes place in Rome, the shots are busy, suggesting an urban environment, without being cluttered. And when the play shifts to the battlefield, the camera gives an impression of space without sacrificing identity to gratuitous environmental long shots. For comparison, consider how difficult it can be to tell one actor from another in several of Branagh’s huge Hamlet masters.

Further, Makiewicz combines his excellent camera work with first-rate dramaturgy. His cutting—far less brutal than Olivier’s on any of his three films—supports an energetic, exciting, and clear narrative. We have here, perhaps, the professional filmmaker’s comfort with and acceptance of the idea of day players, as opposed to the actor-manager’s suspicion of talented small part actors. Where Olivier eliminates Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras from his Hamlet as either too distracting or too confusing for his audience, Mankiewicz includes Titinius, Clitus, Volumnius and Strato on the theory that an epic narrative requires atmosphere. There is dramatic value in seeing several soldiers refuse to assist Brutus in committing suicide before one reluctantly consents. If the oft-repeated dictum of the film school professor is “Show, don’t tell,” the short scene towards the end of the film shows Brutus’ popularity with his men, and, in James Mason’s gentle and resigned response to their refusal, shows why such a commander would be popular.


A Shift in Emphasis

Finally, Mankiewicz’s Caesar represents a shift in emphasis relative to all three of Olivier’s films. This is a complex point which speaks to the production history of the plays in general, and the continued trajectory of filmed Shakespeare in particular. Some context: from the Restoration through the early decades of the 20th century, Shakespeare’s plays were virtually always staged by the actor who played the leading role. This practice influenced more than 200 years of Shakespearean production in several ways: some predictable, others less so. For example, since these actor-managers were universally male, the tragedies and histories saw far more stage time than did the comedies. Indeed several of the comedies were drastically rewritten to pad the leading male roles, and many strong supporting roles were reduced or eliminated altogether from the tragedies and histories, lest they distract from the actor-manager’s central performance. Towards the middle of the 19th Century, adaptations such as those by Tate (King Lear), Cibber (Richard III), and Dryden (The Tempest) began to fall out of fashion in favor of the Shakespearean originals, but actor-managers continued to cut the plays heavily, both to pad their own parts, and to make room for increasingly complicated scenic effects. During this period, several of the less star-driven plays disappeared from the stage completely, particularly if their protagonists behaved in ways that were neither entirely noble, nor spectacularly villainous, or their plots involved behavior contrary to the morality of the age (e.g.. Measure for Measure, Troilus, Titus, etc.). In addition, this emphasis on the great tragic roles, replete as they all are with long passages of complex and imagistic poetry, begat a style of performance which a contemporary audience might more readily associate with opera: rigid physicality, grand sweeping gesture, and a vocal delivery which privileged musicality and histrionics over emotional truth, and, often, over sense.

Toward the end of the 19th Century, two men, William Poel and Harley Granville-Barker, reacting to what they perceived as excesses in the established style of Shakespearean performance, began presenting Shakespeare’s plays in what they considered a more Elizabethan manner. They did away with elaborate scenery, experimented with theatrical configurations other than proscenium, and encouraged actors to find character as well as music in the structure of Shakespeare’s language. Poel had been an actor and designer and Granville-Barker an actor, but by the early 20th Century, both men had gained prominence as teachers, scholars, and—a job description new to theatre—directors.

The experiments, and later West End productions of the New Elizabethans, as Poel and Granville-Barker called themselves, did not immediately end the reign of the actor-managers. Indeed, Victoria conferred a kind of royal approval upon established performance tradition by knighting Henry Irving, the most successful of the late 19th Century actor-managers in 1895. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Sir Frank Benson continued the tradition into the early 20th Century, and their performances were among the first seen by the two classical actors who would come to dominate that century, John Gielgud (b. 1904) and Laurence Olivier (b. 1907.)

It was probably the First World War which doomed the actor-managers, as it doomed so many other individuals and institutions. Benson and Beerbohm Tree were too old to serve, but their companies were decimated by wartime casualties. Also, a new generation of playwrights—Shaw, Pinero, Rattigan, Fry and T.S. Eliot, as well as Ibsen, Chekhov and O’Neill—far more skilled and various than anything the high Victorian era had produced, were competing for a post-war audience; as were early movies. By 1929, most Shakespeare production in London had migrated from the West End to the Old Vic on the South Bank of the Thames, a theatre managed by a legendarily parsimonious South African school teacher named Lilian Baylis. Rather a cultural crusader than either an actor or a director, Baylis began producing Shakespeare at the Vic in 1914, hiring directors, then called “producers” some of whom were old-style actor-managers, but an increasing number of whom—Ben Greet, Harcourt Williams, and Tyrone Guthrie—were disciples of Poel and Granville-Barker. Between 1929 and 1937, John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness debuted at the Vic, joining Poel’s student Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndyke, both Vic veterans, in several seasons of Shakespearean roles, large and small.

This extraordinary generation of British actors represented a transitional period between the actor-managers of the 19th century and the stars trained in the great ensemble companies—Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, etc.—in the second half of the 20th. Had their number been fewer, their lives shorter, or the standard of their work less uniformly excellent, this transitional period might have been of shorter duration, but these actors, particularly Gielgud—great-nephew of Ellen Terry, Irving’s remarkable leading lady—and Olivier, had a foot in both camps. Their earliest, formative experiences with Shakespeare came from touring productions by Benson, H. B. Irving—Sir Henry’s son—and others. Then, in their late 20s and early 30s, they came under the influence of Williams and Guthrie at the Vic. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, a pattern emerged, again with particular reference to Gielgud and Olivier: both men would play a major role for the first time at the Vic under a director. Having found a given role comfortable, successful or both, the actor in question would take a lease on a commercial theatre and produce the play, occasionally inviting a director in to advise or co-direct, but as often directing the play in question himself. Gielgud, who thought in terms of seasons rather than individual plays, was the more frequent collaborator. Olivier, a less successful producer of West End fare, chose to flesh out Guthrie’s Hamlet and Henry V and John Burrell’s Richard III on film, all of which he directed alone.

If we consider Olivier’s Henry V in 1944 to be the birth of modern cinematic Shakespeare, a list of major Shakespearean films in the ten years following that birth reveals the powerful influence of the actor-manager tradition out of which the genre was born, and an early indication of the director-driven course upon which it would evolve.

1944: Henry V

directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.

1948 Macbeth directed by and starring Orson Welles.
1948 Hamlet directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.
1952 Othello directed by and starring Orson Welles.
1953 Julius Caesar directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
1955 Richard III directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.

(This same period contains a failed Italian production of Romeo and Juliet with a mixed English and Italian cast, and a more successful Russian Othello.)

Given the preponderance of star/director films on this list, the Mankiewicz Caesar appears initially to be a failed experiment: an expensive Hollywood epic produced primarily as a dubious vehicle for a young American movie star, Brando, a long way out of his comfort zone. Three facts, however, speak in mitigation of such an interpretation. The first is the financial and critical success of Caesar. By no means a blockbuster, the film was nevertheless nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, and it even won one: Best Art Direction. The second is the presence of Gielgud in the cast, and in a supporting role, albeit a major one. Here at last was a clean break from the actor-manager paradigm made by the lineal heir to the tradition: Ellen Terry’s grand-nephew was content to receive fourth billing in a major Shakespearean event, at the height of his powers—something Olivier never did, in any medium. Finally, there is Mankiewicz’s fidelity to his source material, which looks forward to John Barton, Peter Hall and the primacy of text approach upon which the Royal Shakespeare Company and most American Shakespeare festivals are based. Sir Henry Irving would have recognized and applauded Olivier’s exorcism of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras from Hamlet, Margaret and much of Clarence and Buckingham from Richard III, and most of Henry V aside from what Henry says himself. But he would have been at pains to locate himself in the balanced ensemble of Makiewicz’s Caesar, in which so many wonderful voices, from the cobbler to Marullus to Strato—brief as their contributions might be—are given a hearing.

Towards the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, filmed Shakespeare took a back seat to several other cultural impulses around the English speaking world. In 1960, the star-driven Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford received a royal charter, a government subsidy, a new artistic director: Peter Hall, a new name: the Royal Shakespeare Company, and an ensemble of young actors which would include Denholm Elliott, Eric Porter, Peter O’Toole, Ian Holm, David Warner, Diana Rigg, Dorothy Tutin, Vanessa Redgrave, and Judi Dench. In 1962, Laurence Olivier was appointed Artistic Director of the newly formed National Theatre of Great Britain, initially housed at the Old Vic. Olivier had sought in vain for funding to film his Macbeth, and while Orson Welles would eventually scrape together enough to realize his cherished Falstaff project, Chimes at Midnight, the era of the actor-manager as film impresario had, for all intents and purposes, died. And it would stay dead until Kenneth Branagh resurrected it with limited success almost thirty years later. Olivier began his tenure at the National in 1963 by directing a Hamlet which starred O’Toole, and featured Derek Jacobi, Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Rosemary Harris, Max Adrian, Michael Redgrave and Diana Wynyard. Before long Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw, Joan Plowright, Jeremy Brett, Anthony Hopkins, Lynn Redgrave, Ian McKellen, and Michael Gambon would join the company as well. The National’s repertoire would range from the classics through Shakespeare to the plays of Arnold Wesker, John Osborne and Tom Stoppard, while the RSC developed work by Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Stoppard and David Storey. In Canada, the Stratford Festival, begun in 1953 with a two-play season headlined by Alec Guinness and Irene Worth, had begun making stars of Christopher Plummer, William Hutt and Martha Henry, while attracting such international stars as Paul Scofield, Alan Bates and Zoe Caldwell. And in the United States, the regional theatre movement gained momentum, and directors like Tyrone Guthrie, William Ball, Craig Noel and Michael Kahn brought productions of the classics to Minneapolis, San Diego, and Washington D.C. even as Joseph Papp brought George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, and later Kevin Kline, Raul Julia and Meryl Streep to prominence at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.

In retrospect, the 1960s—a revolutionary decade in so many ways—proved to be the golden age of director-driven Shakespeare and director’s theatre in general. In England, the Gielgud/Olivier generation was aging past many of Shakespeare’s leading roles, but, unlike earlier actor-managers, who were content to play Romeo and Coriolanus into their 60s and 70s, both Olivier and Gielgud found new avenues for their considerable talents in collaboration with younger directors—Peter Hall, Peter Brook, John Dexter, Tony Richardson—and contemporary playwrights like John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and David Storey. Further, Peter Hall’s appointment as Artistic Director of the newly christened Royal Shakespeare Company was seen as a reaction to the star-driven productions which had brought the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to national prominence in the 1950s under artistic director Anthony Quayle. Hall and his contemporaries Peter Brook, John Barton, Clifford Williams, and William Gaskill were young, university-educated, and politically-minded. They were also conversant with and influenced by theatrical theorists and practitioners from Continental Europe: playwrights like Brecht, Weiss, and Ionesco, and theatrical philosophers such as Jan Kott and Antoine Artaud. Under the patronage of the new national theatres, European companies brought contemporary and classical work—some of it translated and some in the language of the visiting companies—to festivals and touring venues throughout England. "Directors Shakespeare" rapidly became a far more international product than actor-manager Shakespeare had ever been, and what would become one of its most influential voices came from a 37-year old (in 1960) Italian opera director, who would make three of the most popular, naturalistic, and heavily cut Shakespeare films in the history of the sub-genre.


Check back next week for part three of this five-part series.



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