A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
*Many thanks to Anna Overseas for this wonderful image. It doesn’t have a lot to do with Shakespeare on Film, but it does continue with our animal theme and generally looks the business.
It has always seemed somewhat ironic to me that some of the greatest Shakespeare films (in my view) are the ones that do away with what he is most famous for – his language.
No English-speaking film comes even close to Kurosawa’s magnificent Ran, where King Lear is transposed onto feudal Japan and the Samurai system – a film where visual poetry and imagery becomes the equivalent film language for Shakespeare’s words. Or Kozintsev’s Hamlet where politics comes to the fore in an oppressive court imprisoning an apparently dissident Hamlet – brooding magnificently in black and white photography with a score by Shostokovich. (Although you do get to read a lot of Shakespeare’s words in the subtitles.)
Ok, there are some wonderful filmed versions in English, for example Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth, which, interestingly, goes to the other extreme – so pared down it is almost nothing but the words themselves (and some brilliantly psychological acting). Or Baz Lurhmann’s bright, colourful Romeo and Juliet, so bold and confident in its use of Shakespeare’s words that the juxtaposition of modern context and archaic language doesn’t even strike as odd after a while. But I’m beginning to wonder, when it comes to film, whether the thing we all go on about when it comes to Shakespeare is actually holding him back – his words. Not because of difficulty of understanding, but because, in this country, we are so concerned with those words that we simply forget what powerful political stories these are.
The Trouble with Richard III
When I was thinking about this piece I was trying to remember the great themes of Rich III and I had a bit of trouble coming up with any. The Henry IV and V plays have their coming of age story and the duty of kingship and putting away of childish things and the duty to the nation over the duty to feckless individuals (like Falstaff). Hamlet has great themes of inertia and indecision and clashes of duty, both familial and national. In Macbeth, the themes of ambition and thinking versus acting, of the corrupting nature of getting blood on your hands, the overturning of the natural order and great chain of being, a growing immunity to guilt and horror…
But what ARE the great themes of Richard III?
“Once a bastard, always a bastard”?
“I’m mean, but you can’t help but like me”?
“I’ll start as I mean to go on”?
What is his tragic fatal flaw – “well, just a bit of a psychopath, really”.
The trouble with Richard III is that from the first moment he limps onto the stage or silver screen and tells us he’s a nasty piece of work, we know what we are dealing with: a nasty piece of work. From here, he proceeds to plot his dastardly deeds in full view of the audience. We are complicit with his evil. He is our JR. The man we love to hate. The comedy villain.
Unsurprisingly, it remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.
But, perhaps, it is the above quality that makes this a play popular with actors and audiences but still without a truly great – and I mean great rather than good – film (in the opinionated opinion of yours truly).
Olivier’s Film Version
It is striking that when it comes to Shakespeare in English on film that these are so often primarily actors’ rather than film directors’ projects.
The two main Richard film adaptations of the last 50 years are Lawrence Olivier’s in 1955 and Ian McKellen’s in 1995 – two great actors, two great actor projects: both either adapted or extended from successful stage productions.
Olivier’s is set at the historical period it purports to be in – the 15th century. The film includes a prestigious cast of stars of the British stage and Olivier goes to town as the OTT theatrical villain. The Technicolour, stagy sets and Olivier’s comedy wig just add to the general campness of the whole thing. Olivier retains one of the key elements of the play by playing the famous asides straight to camera which is important to keep the audience complicit -but does add to the slight feeling of pantomime. Unlike his Henry V, (where many of the rousing speeches, feeling of patriotism and general rabble-rousing fervour seem to speak directly to a population in the midst of the Second World War, something that gives it a powerful resonance even today) there is no real attempt to create a synergy between the play and the modern day.
At the time of its release this film was not lauded and applauded quite as much as Olivier’s other Shakespeare films (Henry V and Hamlet). But, despite disappointment at the box office, it is still one of the most popular films of Shakespeare ever made – reaching an enormous audience mainly through later showings on television (an estimated 25-40 million viewers tuned in when it was aired on Television in1955 – according to the British Film Institute, via Wikipedia!)
And, in its own way, it is still a wonderful film. Despite the stagy sets, the comedy wigs, the melodramatic performances, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and lovable film – rather like the play itself in fact – and I challenge anyone not to enjoy it.
McKellen’s Film Version
Ian McKellen’s film in the early nineties was not set in either Richard’s time nor the present day but in the 1930s, painting parallels with the rise of Fascism. Where such adaptations are common in the theatre (and indeed this was another adaptation of a successful stage production directed by Richard Eyre and with a much-praised performance from McKellen in the starring role) – it is a slightly uneasy convention when transferred to film.
This was again, essentially, an actor’s project with McKellen acting, writing the screenplay and gathering people and money for the film.
And the result, again, is highly enjoyable – a bold and exciting thriller with some wonderful acting and moody photography. It is also very funny – something easy to discount but essential to the original play – with many lovely comic touches including the famous moment when Richard delivers his famous line “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” when his 1930s jeep gets stuck in the mud.
However, although I really enjoyed this film, for me there is a problem with the central concept, particularly in the film’s later stages.
Reading up about its circumstances, I found a quote from McKellen who talked of the possible rise of Fascism in Britain in the 30s.
…It was a period when a tyrant reminiscent of Richard III might just have arisen in the United Kingdom. On his abdication, Edward VIII visited Hitler with approval and Oswald Mosley aped Germanic fascism in the streets where I live in the East End of London. (See full interview here)
This is a fascinating and chilling idea. But, for me, the notion of the Britain-that-could-have-been does not translate completely successfully to the film, mainly because the symbolism (red and black banners, Hitleresque rallies, chanting and marching) is too straightforwardly Nuremberg to make that extra jump to a fictionalised fascist Britain.
Whilst there are lovely moody scenes – for example in the hospital where Richard meets the mourning Lady Anne and proceeds to jump joyously down corridors directly addressing the camera to tell us of his dastardliness against a backdrop full of war-wounded – the film gets increasingly extreme in its imagery, and this ultimately reduces rather than increases the scope of the film. Despite its slickness and moodiness and pace and thrillerishness, the clear Nuremberg imagery and iconography, particularly towards the end, does not lead us to think of the historical turn we might have taken so much as takes us straight to Hitler: Do Not Pass Go.
Perhaps it is a difference of emphasis. With an actor who cares as passionately about Shakespeare as McKellen does, perhaps Hitler is being used as an analogy to help us understand and access Shakespeare, rather than Shakespeare being used to illuminate the world around us. The danger when you marry two accepted monsters is that an audience might just shrug off both as extreme aberrations rather than seeing the real dangers of letting any one individual gain too much power. Shakespeare’s character ain’t lovely, Hitler wasn’t too nice either – link the two together and what do you get? Well, not a lot of revelation quite frankly. But you do get McKellen and a dramatic, slick, moody, watchable, pacy and thoroughly enjoyable thriller.
Those Pesky Themes Again
I am beginning to wonder if it the lack of grand overarching themes in the original play that is the limiting factor, rather than the adaptations themselves.
And so, I return, broodingly, to the central problem. What ARE the big themes of Richard III?
Perhaps Richard and Anne can lend us a clue.
Richard’s famous wooing of Anne over the dead body of her husband (for whose death Richard is responsible) is always a bit of a problem scene. How do you convince the audience that Lady Anne should have such an about-turn of feeling in the course of just one scene?
In the Olivier version the famous scene is split in two, giving her a bit more of a chance to cool down and be worn down by Richard’s continued advances. In the McKellen version, we know the lady (splendidly played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) is won over by the end of their first encounter. This version has more problems to deal with in terms of the period (a woman might easily be married off in the 15th century, not that fussed about her husband, fearful of losing her place and standing in the court. This is rather more unlikely in the 1930s). But McKellen makes up for this by concentrating on the extreme flattery poured upon her by Richard and by use of Kristin Scott Thomas’s trade-mark buttoned-up enigmatic aristocratic air to leave us less sure as to her true feelings either before or after the encounter.
This scene, problematic though it is, seems to me to be the key to Richard III.
The Smiling Dissembler
Richard III does not have the great themes of the greatest Shakespeare tragedies that have lead to the greatest works of art in film. But what it does have is the smiling face of the dissembler, the smarmy villain who wins over everyone with flattery, the smiling face of ruthlessness and deceit who uses other people’s vanity towards their own undoing which leads his country into a wholly unwanted war…
Perhaps adaptations of Richard III have for too long been dominated by that grand central performance and the idea of the single extraordinary man. Perhaps it is about time what he represents should be explored through the face of modern politics, the way we are so easily won over by charm and flattery, how we don’t listen to what people say but how they say it. How we, like Anne, listen to words, not actions, and say to ourselves that what matters is intention, is penitence, is saying sorry – not what has been done, even when that is murder and deceit.
Or maybe we have been too side-tracked by Shakespeare’s original title “The Tragedy of King Richard the third”. It is, after all, a very funny play. Why not go the whole hog into satire: Richard III by way of The Thick of It – where Richard’s manipulative powers could have a new edge, surrounded by media, pr and obscenely swearing press officers!
In her piece on Monday Moira said, “It all changes though, when Richard finally becomes king. The monologues stop. The lines of communication and bewitchment are broken. Belatedly, we see him for the monster he really is.”
Surely, at the end of the day, this is the great theme of Richard III? The lying, dissembling and manipulating needed to worm your way into power, and how susceptible we are as human beings to be flattered, charmed and listen to the honied words – the rhetoric – rather than judging people by their actions: however terrible those actions might be.
If this is not one of the great themes of our era then I don’t know what is.