Performance at the Almeida Theatre in London on the 21st of July 2016.
Though a play is written to be produced in a live-action format, it still usually exists originally on the page, as a thing, a printed document that a director, actors, costume designers, etc. help bring to life. Many critics fail to recognize the mutuality of this relationship — between a production and the text of the play itself. Too often they dismiss a production as “not faithful to the play” or criticize it for “excessive cutting.” In these critiques, the text of the play represents an ideal or standard that any given production must live up to, a notion that assumes the play’s meaning is objective and stable; In this, the faithful production is relegated to an entirely subordinate status where it is praised for not diverting from the true meaning of the play, while the unfaithful production is abruptly dismissed for tampering with that meaning. I want to argue here for a different kind of thinking about the relationship between the text of the play and a live performance or film of it. These are, for me, a conversation -- one in which neither the play nor performance of it have the high ground or upper hand. In "Shakespeare and the Film", one of my most precious possessions, Roger Manvell writes, “we shall discuss in this book the degree of artistic responsibility with which Shakespeare’s plays have been transferred to the screen". For Manvell, filmmakers and stage directors touching Shakespeare handle something precious, something requiring immense care and a sense of duty. The director’s “artistic responsibility,” in his estimation, is to “transfer,” not to transform, not to condense or expand, not to interpret. Manville’s view, while dated, continues to be taken up quite frequently by film critics today. Films are often still judged by this standard of faithfulness.
Manvell also writes, “The new media, with their emphatic close-shots, can be brought into full play to enhance and underline the significance of the words. Or they can . . . use spectacle and pictorialism to mute the sense of the lines, and turn Shakespeare’s scintillating poetry into what sounds like the baying of human hounds” Here he expects the film (or the play) to be a literal rendering of the lines. Elsewhere, Manvell discusses how Shakespeare’s “characterization and his poetry will most effectively be served by the screen”, as if the film or the play is meant to do the work of the lines—is slave to the lines. Later, he critiques the “vandalism” of some adaptations. Often, film and stage productions are not only expected to be faithful to the text of the play but also to the conventions of theatre. Certainly, it is important to consider how film and theatre overlap and to think about how they comment on one another, but there are significant differences between the two media as well. In theatre, the actors and the audience are in one room; in film, they are not. In theatre, sets are recognizable as sets; in film they are not. In theatre, every look of an audience member is done from one static angle. In film, there is a camera that moves dynamically and there are cuts, which determine the angle. Thus, the film medium presents a unique way of adapting Shakespeare, and there is definite utility in valuing the power of film to reveal its subject in new ways. For example, we could look to two very different film adaptations of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing", the 1993 film from director Kenneth Branagh and the 2012 film from director Joss Whedon. Both directors are known for having a very idiosyncratic directorial style. These are not films where the director disappears in service of the lines. There are things I appreciate about both films, but I would also admit that neither is a perfect film -- at least not for me as a viewer.
What I note is how radically different these two productions are from each other, one a lavish richly-colored delight with expansive wide shots and hundreds of extras, the other a quieter black and white experiment all shot at a single location. It is, in fact, the boldest choices made by these films -- the moments where they most liberally interpret Shakespeare's play -- that draw me to them. I would argue that the best film adaptations (and the best stage adaptations, for that matter) do not bend to the text, but rather thoughtfully adapt the text for another medium. Manvell argues that there is a “transmutation” of a play when it is filmed. In the last paragraph of his introduction to Shakespeare and the Film, he writes: It can be claimed that Shakespeare’s dramatic art is best fulfilled on the screen through an uncompromising transmutation of everything for which his words stand into an entirely new form, made up of images-with-sound. In this case much, or even at times all, of what he wrote for a stage where everything had to be created in the imagination of the audience through the speech he put into the mouths of his actors, may well have to suffer a ‘seachange into something rich and strange’—poetry cast in the mold of another medium as potentially powerful in its own right as his own. Manvell still insists that the lines “suffer,” but there is a clear sense here that this type of “transmutation” could also be capable of enriching the lines. This "transmutation" is not something controlled only by a director. Shakespeare doesn't, literally, put speeches into the mouths of his actors. Instead, the actors find the words upon a page and, with the help of a director, they put those words into their own mouths in very characteristic ways. Emma Thompson's Beatrice (in the Branagh film) is very different from Amy Acker's Beatrice (in the Whedon film). Thompson chooses to go big (emoting right up to the rafters) in places where Acker chooses to have her Beatrice go small. Both make very deliberate choices, and in my view, their performances are the anchors in each of these films. In the "O, that I were a man!" scene, for example, Acker's Beatrice paces around the set and has her back to the camera at several key moments. Acker's extensive experience as an actor for both screen and stage suggests to me that this was a conscious choice. (As an aside, Acker played Hero in a live production of Much Ado at the American Players Theatre in 1999.) Perhaps, she turns her back at certain well-known lines to de-emphasize them -- so that we hear other lines we might have missed before. Even if the choice were purely instinctual, what Acker succeeds at doing is making this scene about a woman's assertions of herself at great cost and through great resistance -- and this is echoed both in her words and in what we see on screen. The scene, then, becomes a conversation between Acker and her director, between Acker as Beatrice and the audience, and between Acker and Shakespeare. She is not changing the scene, but bringing a different kind of light to it. Adaptation functions as a form of interpretation not a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s work. In this, the films become primary texts in their own right while also engaging directly with their sources. A film version of Much Ado About Nothing is a reading of the play, but it is both a literal reading of the lines themselves and a critical reading or interpretation of their meaning. Films become more than just reenactments; they become critically responsive texts—they become active readers. This kind of work honors the shifting, fluid status of meaning in the plays. Shakespeare’s plays are something that exist perpetually in the present—a film is capable of bringing life in some new way to "A Midsummer Night’s Dream", or to Much Ado About Nothing" as do readers who continually bring to them new interpretations.
What about Rupert Goold's adaptation of Richard III? This post is already too long. To cut things short, suffice to say, Ralph Fiennes was an astounding Richard III. As I’ve said elsewhere, forget the recent movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Fiennes' movie is not really in the same league as the Mckellen version, but it’s still one of the best in terms of recent productions of Richard III. Scott Handy as George, Duke of Clarence, was also excellent. Finbar Lynch as Buckingham was also above par. Daniel Cerqueira’s Catesby was also bloody good (is he a Portuguese actor?), as was James Garnon's Hastings (his delivery of "Bloody Richard" was terrific).
When I went to watch it I had some misgivings. For starters I didn’t know who Rupert Goold was. After having watched this play by him, I’m comfortable in saying that he’s one of the best directors around (too bad about the defilement scene; it was really uncalled for): he made sure that a healthy tension was maintained throughout the play, such that the actors' emotions did not devolve into embarrassing ham-acting. Unfortunately, we have a lot of that in English and Portuguese theatre at the moment. As I’ve stated in another post, Richard III is my favourite Shakespearean villain. I love an arch villain knocking off rivals before building to a big battle at the end. Villains are always great fun to play and this one has all the best lines. I’ve always thought a play about Richard must put the stress on Richard's misogyny and in that regard Fiennes was quite impressive. At times the best Richards should make me laugh, but it should also make me very uncomfortable, like the best of horror.
What I didn’t like: the defilement scene (Richard and Aislín McGuckin as Elizabeth). Was it really necessary as a way of adding dramaturgy to the play? I still have no idea why some directors change things the way they do, when we simply don’t have it in the Shakespeare text. I’m not against introducing new scenes when the added value is just that. Added value. But not in this case. What was Rupert Goold's thinking...? Johanna Vanderham’s Anne: Terrible performance. She just delivers all of her lines in a monocordic tone of voice. She was absolutely dreadful.
Goold’s Richard didn't bother to conceal his own motives for doing the things he did, bending people to his will with unspoken consequences and a single look. Overall a performance that transcended the stage, gripped me from the first moment and didn’t let me go until the last scene. Fiennes gave me a truly devastating performance; it was a bit like witnessing some freak force of nature at play on stage. Quite an experience.
Incidentally, Anthony Sher’s Richard III back in the 80s is still my absolute favourite. It was a chillingly menacing performance.
NB: All pictures and clips taken by me, in stealth mode. using high-tech devices, during the performance...