Thursday, October 28, 2010

As You Like It (2006)

By any standard, Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 production of As You Like It is exceptional.  It is both an incredibly entertaining film and – in my mind - a terrifically faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s original play.  In the DVD extra “From Page to Screen With Kenneth Branagh,” the director explains that, as a filmmaker adapting Shakespeare, “you’re trying to serve the story in the medium you’re working in” (emphasis added).  The point being that if you just stick to the text, then you don’t have a visually stunning movie; but throw the text out the window in order to make a Star Wars prequel-esque, special effects-heavy, cinematic explosion, then you’ve lost Shakespeare’s genius in the translation.   Brannagh makes neither mistake here.

In As You Like It, Branagh makes the bold decision to change the play’s setting from a French dukedom (of an uncertain time period) to the feudal Japan of the 19th century.  In fact, as the film opened, I felt like the play was happening in the cover art of Weezer’s classic 1996 album Pinkerton.  
You should own this album.
As a huge fan, I was that much more excited about the movie.  The setting change was a make it or break it move for Branagh’s production, one which proves itself over the course of the film to be a brilliant decision. Shakespeare’s play begins with the hostile takeover by Duke Frederick already completed, but the cool new setting allows Brangh to stage it at the film’s outset as a ferocious samurai invasion.  Pairing that awesome open with seamless translation of Shakespeare’s “wrestling” in Act One to the sumo wrestling in the film, and you not only have a dynamite new setting, but also the brilliant juxtaposition of the dukedom’s violence and the peace we find in the Forest of Arden.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Troilus and Cressida: All’s Not Fair in Love and The Trojan War

Cressida and Pandarus View Passing Warriors by Alexandre Bida 1890

I was excited to find that this play, wholly unknown to me prior to this reading, was set during the Trojan War.  I had enjoyed The Odyssey in high school, and more recently made my way through The Illiad (incidentally, I was surprised by where The Illiad ended: Troy is still standing, Achilles’ heel hasn’t been a problem, and nobody had even mentioned a giant horse). Troilus and Cressida presented me with an interesting combination: a play I knew nothing about, but with a cast of characters that I did know fairly well.

It’s a good thing that I am into the Trojan War, because the marquee-garnering romance between Troilus (son to Priam, king of Troy, and youngest brother of Trojan hero Hector) and Cressida (some Trojan lord’s daughter) totally takes a back seat here to the war itself.  Like The Illiad, Troilus and Cressida spends a lot of time on the Greeks’ struggle to get Achilles to come out of his tent and actually fight, and also on what eventually transpires between Achilles and Hector (when Achilles is finally done throwing his little fit).  Cressida completely disappears during Act 2 while we check in on the problems and resulting arguments of both the Greek and Trojan leaders, which wouldn’t have seemed weird if she hadn’t gotten top billing.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Henry V (1989)

I think it’s important to note that I don’t evaluate a film in the Shawn and Shakespeare Film Review Series solely on its own merit, but also on how effectively, and how faithfully, it presents Shakespeare’s original play.   In the case of Henry V, I realize that I am expecting a lot: I want the film to have everything I love in the play, and to be as faithful as possible to it – allotting, of course, for a reasonable degree of change in the transition from stage to screen; yet I also want all the bells and whistles that a motion picture can deliver.  I would indeed like my cake, and the privilege to eat it too.  In short, I know myself to be placing a pretty tall order.

Having said all that, there is no question in my mind that Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 production of Henry V is a great film (though I do ultimately have some complaints).  The greatest strength of this adaptation is a number of excellent performances.  Branagh himself is dynamic as Henry, and was even nominated for an Academy Award for the role (as well as for Best Director).  Derek Jacobi is awesome as the Chorus, and Branagh weaves Jacobi’s narration between scenes brilliantly. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

HENRY V (at the Sedgwick Theater in Philadelphia on Sunday October 3rd 2010)

Performed by the Quintessence Theatre Group, and directed by Alexander Burns

Click here to read my interview with HENRY V director Alexander Burns.

Click here to find out more and to get yourself tickets to this - spoiler alert - AMAZING show!

I had wondered, as I was looking forward to this performance, how it would be possible for Henry V, which is so powerful on the page with its clash of kingdoms in epic battle, to have the same kind of impact when performed on stage. Of course, Shakespeare himself was aware of how ambitious an undertaking this process was, having the Chorus offer the preemptive apology in the Prologue to Henry V: “Pardon, gentles all, / The flat unraised spirits that have dared / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object.” It was clear to me, from the very first moments of this performance, that the Quintessence Theatre Group and director Alexander Burns had boldly embraced the gutsy spirit of Shakespeare’s original production.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Henry V: England’s Great Underdog (That’s the Humor of It)

The Duke of York Mourns the Death of Suffolk by Alexandre Bida (19th Century)

This play has everything! High stakes action and adventure? Check. The intense drama of war? Check. Great comic elements? Check. Romance? Check. The depth of moral ambiguity and philosophical debate? Check. Suspense, tension, intrigue, betrayal, corruption, funny accents, foreign languages, arrogant braggarts being taken down a peg? Go ahead and call the bank now, because we’re going to need more checks.