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A (partial) Complete Works, 1.

A (partial) Complete Works, 1.
18 March 2010 posted by John Wyver

Loyal readers may recall my post six months ago about the project of a Complete Works of Shakespeare on screen for the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death in 2016. I've had some interesting conversations about the idea since then, but I can't claim to have made any real headway. Not that I'm giving up... I thought, however, that we might approach the idea of such a Complete Works from a different angle, by selecting which of the 'available' versions of each play we would enshrine in a screen canon.

Doubtless we'll refine this together, but today (and in three, or perhaps four, further posts) I'm going to attempt a brief overview of film and televisions versions of each of the plays. I put inverted commas around available in the previous paragraph because I think we can select versions that are or have been on home video or DVD or that might conceivably be accessed with a little research effort. Which for the most part rules out fascinating-but-obscure Eastern European and Asian productions as well as the majority of silent movies. British television versions known to have been recorded can count, as can feature films released in some way in the west.

There are certain plays -- Hamlet and Macbeth come to mind, unsurprisingly -- whose film and television versions I know pretty well. For many others I'm familiar with only one or two productions, and there are some that I've never seen on screen. So in this first go-round, there will be some films that I believe are essential for this Complete Shakespeare -- these I call the 'canon' -- and others where, for me, there are only 'contenders'. Challenges to my choices and arguments for one or more of the contenders will be exceptionally welcome.

Having identified the 'contenders', I'll return to certain plays in future posts to see if, after supplementary viewings, we can extend the canon with definitive choices. I hope that makes sense -- or that you'll pick up what I'm trying to do as we go along. The ordering of the plays that follows is taken from the tentative chronology in The RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (and I'm not sure I know of a better way to spend £11.98 via Amazon).

I'm tempted to start with a touch of iconoclasm and canonise the Julia Stiles-Heath Ledger update 10 Things I Hate About You, 1999. But perhaps that's a step too far, at least for the moment. I'm a big fan too, on both stage and screen, of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, the film of which was released (in 3-D!) in 1953. But I think we probably need to be a touch more conservative in the versions we'll consider seriously.

Which leaves us with the 1929 Mary Pickford-Douglas Fairbanks The Taming of the Shrew, which runs for just 65 minutes;  Franco Zeffirelli's lavish The Taming of the Shrew, 1967 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and The Taming of the Shrew from The BBC Television Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Miller in 1980, with John Cleese and Sarah Badel. It's a long time since I saw the Zeffirelli but at BFI Screenonline, the reliable Michael Brooke enthuses about Miller's production:

Miller assumed a more intelligent and literate audience [than had been the case with earlier productions in the series]. Accordingly, he adopted a much more stylised visual conception based around great paintings of the era in which the play was set - the patterning and imagery of Vermeer's interiors were the chief inspiration here.

... The interpretive (and casting) gamble paid off handsomely, with the production regularly singled out as the most findly-remembered of all the BBC Shakespeares.

The Zeffirelli and the Miller go onto a viewing list; let's mark both down as contenders.

HENRY VI, PARTS I, 2 AND 3  1591-92
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no movie versions that I can track down. Apart that is, from an oddity courtesy of the essential Shakespeare database compiled by the British Universities Film & Video Council. Highlighted here is Show of Shows, 1929, with

a ten-minute sequence in one of Hollywood's first talking pictures [which] shows John Barrymore reciting Gloucester's soliloquy from Henry VI part 3. Probably the first Shakespeare scene in a talking picture.

We are, however, spoilt for choice for television chronicles from the BBC. There's An Age of Kings, 1960 (blogs from last year for the Henry VI plays are here, here and here), as well as (in a heavily re-worked form), The Wars of the Roses, 1965. But with these plays I feel confident about making the first choice for the canon: director Jane Howell's exceptional and highly stylised trilogy, also discussed here, for The BBC Television Shakespeare.

This is not a play that the screen has taken to its silver. There is, apparently, a 1963 made-for-television film directed by Hans Dieter Schwarze film and the Chinese silent Yijian Mei, 1931. Otherwise our only contender (leaving aside a 1995 Polish recording) is Don Taylor's production for The BBC Television Shakespeare. Michael Brooke has some nice things to say about it, so we'll mark it down as a contender and put it aside for future viewing.

Jane Howell had a good stab at this blood-soaked tale for the BBC in 1985 (it was the last of the cycle to be broadcast), but the honours here (and a place in our canon) have to go to Julie Taymor' s 1999 Titus. I'm pretty much in agreement with Michael Brooke who describes it as

... a wildly inventive visual and conceptual stew that repelled as many as it fascinated (it's far more Ken Russell than Kenneth Branagh) - though it's certainly one of the most provocative and imaginative big-screen Shakespeare films of recent years.

• RICHARD III  1592 or 1594
Once again, Jane Howell did a good job for her 1983 BBC production, and the Corporation has also given us this play as part of An Age of Kings, 1960 and The Wars of the Roses, 1965 (for my earlier comparison of these last two, go here). The bad king in each was played respectively by Ron Cook, Paul Daneman and Ian Holm -- of these (and given that Antony Sher's defining characterisation wasn't recorded in full), I think may favourite is Daneman.

We also, of course, have Al Pacino's quirky Looking for Richard, 1996 (our virtual viewing group responses are here), as well as Laurence Olivier's 1955 film. But it's Richard Loncraine's wonderfully imaginative (and frustratingly unavailable on DVD) 1995 movie with Ian McKellen that I want to elevate to the canon. A totalitarian London has never looked so good.

There's a 1959 Chinese film, Zhou Gui Zou Bie, and apparently an adaptation called As the Heart Desires made in Hong Kong in 1940. But sticking to versions that we might conceivably see, the choice is essentially between James Cellan Jones' 1983 BBC version, with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltrey (!), and Trevor Nunn's 1978 musical production with original songs and a good deal of new dialogue. Thrillingly, this was recorded by ATV and on the strength of my recall of the delight it offered from (whisper it softly) thirty-two years ago, I'm prepared to offer it a place in the canon (although I reserve the right to remove it if I get to see the production again).

Now, for these plays, what have I missed or simply got wrong? Please join in.

More tomorrow, including a choice for Romeo and Juliet (not too hard to predict, I guess), the new RSC stage production of which -- directed by Rupert Goold -- I'm seeing tonight.


David Sorfa

18 March 2010 09:10

In terms of the Henriad, the two obvious contenders are Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965) and My Own Private Idaho (Gus van Sant, 1991). The latter is as much a remake of the Welles film as it is an adaptation of Shakespeare.

David Sorfa

18 March 2010 09:13

Opps - sorry - ignore my previous comment (I don't seem to be able to delete it), I misread Henry IV for Henry VI!

Luke McKernan

18 March 2010 09:46

The Chinese Two Gentlemen of Verona exists on DVD (with the glorious English title of A Spray of Plum Blossoms), albeit in a very poor quality transfer - we have a copy here at the British Library. I'd add my vote to the ATV Comedy of Errors, which I was thrilled by at the time and which stood up pretty well when I saw it again about ten years ago - fast, funny knockabout with terrific dance routines. As one who is always fond of oblique choices, I'd vote for TV's House of Cards as a model adaptation of Richard III. and I'd definitely vote for the 1965 Wars of the Roses as one of the most viscerally powerful TV stagings I've been fortunate enough to see.

John Wyver

18 March 2010 10:35

Thanks for these opening comments of what I hope will be a lively discussion. @ David Sorfa: If I may I'm going to leave your comments, as they'll help inform the discussion of the Henry IV plays next time around -- both films are strong contenders there. @ Luke McKernan: that's fascinating about A Spray of Plum Blossoms - definitely one to try to see. Glad my memory of the ATV Comedy of Errors isn't too erroneous. But I didn't think of House of Cards as a Richard III adaptation -- and, while I'm a real fan of the TV The Wars of the Roses, Ian Holm doesn't quite carry it for me.


18 March 2010 11:48

I found Richard III with Ian McKellen on DVD last year in a German online shop, and it is still available there (I would post the link but I seem to remember from one of your blogs a while back that this is not possible here). Frustratingly, that DVD has German subtitles which cannot be switched off. But it is a very impressive film nevertheless.


18 March 2010 15:01

John, All too few Shakespeareans have really big ideas these days, so I find the scale of your thinking exciting. That said, there are some things I wonder about here, the most pressing of which is: why? Can you say more about why, and what the payoffs are here, and for whom? I note that Shakespeare Quarterly published an issue recently dedicated to the history and currency of "Complete Works" as a cultural project. (It's interesting to see that project revived in performance just at the moment that scholars have all but given up on the idea of a complete edition.) I'd like to see some of the insights from that issue brought to bear on this project. There are a number of conceptual conundrums at the heart of your description that I'd like to hear you think more about. Some of your key criteria seem less stable and self-evident to me than I think they are to others posting here. I'll point to the three I find most challenging to sort through, in the hopes that more conversation may prompt a clearer account of what this project is really about. For example: 1. Of your three delimiting factors in the initial post, I'm most interested in the second: "a profound respect for Shakespeare's language in all its many moods and forms". At one point you seems to rule out non-English-language Shakespeare on these grounds; yet in other parts of the post you happily reference vernacular works and works in languages other than English. Indeed, you point to the idea of a Complete Works for the World -- a notion that would (it seems to me) require us to look beyond English language versions. Moreover, while its dogma that Shakespeareans (scholars and fans) respect Shakespeare's language in its many moods and forms ("many moods and forms" being an accepted property of said language), how many of us agree on what it means to respect that language? I could marshal clips from works as diverse as _Ran_ and _Scotland, PA_ that seem to me to evidence respect that surpasses most other film productions. You'd have to be willing to accept a definition of "respect" as constituted in a deep aesthetic and critical engagement with specific passages, their texture, imagery, pacing, interpretive possibilities. However, none of my clips would constitute recitations of the passages in question. Would they qualify as "respectful" in your terms? 2. "Availability/obscurity" as delimiting categories: available to whom? obscure where? Both the contingencies of media access (what Shakespeare is available to whom where in the world) and the dynamic nature of media convergence put pressure on this category. By 2016 the access picture for any work you cite may be radically different than it is now. Example: the work that I think may be the most thoughtful encounter with _Othello_on film -- Pasolini's _Che cosa sono le nuvole?_ was for a while only available in European DVD formats; but one can readily copy over to another format and now it's up in chunks (jerky and grainy) on YouTube. A host of Asian live performances are becoming more accessible and this will accelerate as the SPIA archive gets going (do recorded live performances belong in the Complete Works?). 3. "a commitment to excellence" -- the first of the three delimiting criteria in the initial post. This also needs further clarification. Excellence according to what standards? The standards of a given medium, imagined audience niche, genre? The expectation to produce an accessible revival of a play? I really love the idea of a cohort of scattered fan-Shakespeareans watching a hundred works over the next six years and arguing about them. I'll happily sign on to such a crowd-sourced project. But I want to know what we are actually arguing about first. If we can get that clear, why not be a bit more ambitious? This is really a crowd-sourcing project so the last thing you need is centralized control -- the top-down, one-to-many structure of the BBC. What's really needed is a multimedia platform such as Omeka, where clips can be posted and discussions pursued. What's needed is a proposal to share around conferences, where Shakespeare scholars could agree to assign some set of these films and discussions of them in their courses. So that by the end of six years we've brought tens of thousands of students around the world into conversation with each other about what counts as "excellence" and "respect" in screen Shakespeare today. That outcome would answer the "why" question for me in a powerful way. Let me know if you want to pursue it...

Bärbel Göbel

18 March 2010 16:50

An ambitious an important project indeed, but I feel that "respectful" use of Shakespeare's language is not only problematic, but eliminating such wonderful and powerful renditions, such as O. The film, just like 10 Things I Hate About You aims at an audience that is not far off the audience Shakespeare would have attracted. And where else does his work shine as brilliantly as in contemporary adaptations that bring his narratives to today's viewers? If you consider works such as the German 'Hamlet Machine' for a moment, did it not hit the emotional target and tell the story on a gut-level that works? I worked in theater and on stage for years, and 'respect' to the written word too often falls short with those viewers that need to hear the stories. And after all, isn't that why they are so powerful today still, because they reached their audience and left them touched.


20 March 2010 03:43

I loved Julie Taymor's Titus the costumes in the RSC's Julius Caesar reminded me of it a bit Anthony Hopkins was brilliant in it especially the final scene. I get the feeling it's not one of his more popular works. You can still view Tennant's Comedy of Errors at the RSC archive in Stratford - that's pretty funny.

John Wyver

21 March 2010 10:48

Particular thanks to Katherine for her post, and for the others as always. Please see Saturday's post, A (partial) Complete Works, sidebar, for a fairly detailed response.


21 March 2010 13:36

Could we have an "honourable mention" category and include within it the BBC's Shakespeare Retold version of Taming of the Shrew? I thought that was a superb reworking of it.

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