15 September 2011

Film and DVD: More about Shakespeare

Yesterday I urged you to see a good stage production of a Shakespeare play rather than read the same play.

But it's the second decade of the 21st century, and most of us are a few clicks or steps away from access to almost any one of the plays on video--not to mention the occasional Shakespeare offering on the big screen. For most of us, video and cinema are the easiest ways to experience Shakespeare, the paths of least resistance.

I'm referring here both to (a) films shot on conventional sound stages and/or on location (e.g., Kenneth Branagh's Henry V) and (b) video recordings that attempt to capture specific stage productions (e.g., 'Richard Burton's Hamlet'). The first type looks like any other feature film and has a budget to match; the second usually makes no attempt to conceal its ties to the stage. It's not always possible to classify a given Shakespeare video in one category or the other. In what follows, I'll speak about them together in very general terms.

So: how do film and DVDs stand up as a way of experiencing Shakespeare's plays?

My quick answer: video Shakespeare uses a different medium (from Shakespeare on stage), neither as deficient as its detractors would have it nor as successful as its strongest advocates maintain. The same is true for specific films and video productions of Shakespeare.

In retrospect, it feels as if I had spent too much of my life listening patiently to those who decried the supposed absurdity of Mel Gibson as Hamlet (1990) or who sang the praises of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V on film (1989). I saw them both when they first appeared, didn't mind seeing them, felt good about their potential to connect new audience members to Shakespeare--but they aren't among the interpretations of Shakespeare that remain vivid for me. (They aren't even the films of Mel Gibson or Kenneth Branagh that remain most vivid for me.) And I would say the same thing about most of the other full cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare I've seen.

The magical Shakespearean moments that I'll remember all my life are all from my direct experience of stage productions, like Trevor Nunn's direction of The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre, or Gregory Doran's of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Young Vic, both seen in London in the year 2000, to mention only two. I'd love to see the DVDs of each of these (they exist, but I've never seen them), but I have no expectation that they would capture the power of live performance, however well they were done. I believe there may be things to be learned from such DVDs (as there are from fully cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare). I would never want to be deprived of all experience of the 1976 staging (by Trevor Nunn again) of Macbeth for the RSC (with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench)… and I know it only through a version recorded for television broadcast in 1978. Let's be grateful for such video recordings… and continue to pursue the experience of live performances on stage.

Next: some thoughts on Shakespeare in ebooks, and a few links.

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