Saturday, April 23, 2016

Celluloid Will: some of my favourite Shakespeare films

[Did this piece for BLink's special Shakespeare issue]

Among my most harrowing school memories is one of our class being marched to a dismal little screening room and made to watch a seemingly endless “film” of The Merchant of Venice. I think this was a Masterpiece Theatre or BBC production, the sort where the camera stays at a fixed distance from the action, as if a stage performance were being video-taped. It reeked of respectability and tasted like medicine calculated to make you healthy and forever dull: the characters didn’t have a hair out of place, the costumes were pristine, the lighting never changed, the actors declaimed their lines as if they were teaching a long-distance Elocution course (and in what we easily impressed, convent-educated Indians imagined was the only “correct” way of speaking English sentences). Despite having recently worked up an interest in Shakespeare, I nearly fell asleep; the students who hadn’t developed that interest might easily have been put off the Bard for life.

No wonder that years later, my head nearly came off from all the nodding I subjected it to while reading an Orson Welles interview: “It’s terrible what’s done to Shakespeare in schools – it’s amazing that people still go to him after what they’ve been through in the classrooms […] If Shakespeare could tune in on us with a time machine, he’d think that modern English actors were speaking in a foreign tongue. There are a lot of his gutsier moments which suffer very much from that particular, refined, upper-class, southern-English way of speaking, which is mainly what we hear now.”

The context was a discussion of Welles’s low-budget 1948 film of Macbeth, where the sets had a creaky, otherworldly, even prehistoric feel to them and the actors spoke with a Scottish “burr” that was sometimes hard to understand. But Welles had wanted to create a sense of lived-in-ness, and the film caught the dark, visceral energy of the play. At least three other major directors – Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood), Roman Polanski (Macbeth) and Vishal Bhardwaj (Maqbool) – have made acclaimed films of Macbeth, and all of those rate among my favourite Shakespeare adaptations, but Welles’s makes you feel like you are trapped with the characters in a land where it is always twilight. This is also true of his 1951 Othello, one of the most striking black-and-white films you’ll ever see (if you get a decent print, and that’s a big “if”).

Anyway, having disparaged that faux-film we saw in school, I should add that I have no problem with the classical, polished approach to Shakespeare, as long as it has some playfulness in it. Even respected British actor-directors – the sort who were knighted before they had turned fifty – have been comfortable enough with the texts (and aware enough that Shakespeare in his own time wrote for the masses) to have fun with them; look at the inventive, witty versions of Henry V and Hamlet that Laurence Olivier made in the 1940s. But what thrills me most when watching a Shakespeare movie are things that are slightly askew, or out of left field – a baseball analogy that may be apt, because… Americans! In the 1929 The Taming of the Shrew, Mary Pickford – one of the most powerful women in Hollywood at the time – gives the “tamed” Katherina’s final monologue an impish touch: after saying the words “I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace / Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway / Where they are bound to serve, love, and obey”, she winks at her maidservant, thus knocking her own servile-sounding speech out of the ball-park and making Petruchio’s manly preening seem ridiculous.

I’m also thinking of Edmond O’Brien’s terrific performance as Casca in the 1953 Julius Caesar. In the early scene where Casca describes how Caesar was thrice offered the crown, O’Brien is flanked by two wonderful British actors – James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud, one of the most celebrated Shakespearean performers ever, as Cassius. Yet, in a film where even the great mumbler Marlon Brando enunciated his lines with reverence, O’Brien speaks almost carelessly, as if this were dialogue from a B-noir rather than timeless poetry to be handled with kid gloves. And he is perfect. His little eye-rolls and pauses as he says “Twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets – and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it” add up to one of the most bracing scenes in a Shakespeare film – the words, and the world around them, come alive.

O’Brien probably couldn’t have got away with playing Casca like that in a large theatrical production. A well-made Shakespeare film can do other things that can’t be done as effectively on stage: for instance, a soliloquy can be turned into an interior monologue – very appropriate for characters who are often on the brink of madness. (As Anthony Lane noted of Hamlet, “this guy, you feel, would happily order a drink inside his own head”.) In both Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet and Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth, there are dramatic passages where just a line or two is spoken aloud while the rest is voiceover. When Macbeth, caught in a world of mirage and deceit, learns that one of the witches’ prophecies has come true, the great soliloquy that begins “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good…” is treated as private contemplation; his lips move only when he clasps his new seal and says “I am Thane of Cawdor”. (Merely thinking isn’t enough for that line, he has to assure himself that this really is happening.)

It can also be fascinating to see movie versions that remind us – through association – of what a big shadow old Will has cast on subsequent literature and popular culture. Take Al Pacino’s 1996 Looking for Richard (a part-performance of Richard III as well as a documentary about how to deal with the play) where, watching Pacino as the improbable brother making his circuitous journey to the throne, one thinks of Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy (and then recalls how often the rise and fall of Michael across those films has been described as “Shakespearean”). Or Welles’s superb
performance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966), which drew so much on the actor-director’s own identification with a character who is jester, dupe and tragic hero at once. Or Julie Taymor’s punkish 1999 Titus, in which Anthony Hopkins plays the vengeance-driven Titus Andronicus; when he serves Tamora her sons baked into meat-pies, one thinks of Hopkins’s emblematic movie role, Hannibal Lecter, and wonders if she’ll get a nice chianti with that.


Now, an admission: if I know a few Shakespearean soliloquys by heart, it isn’t because I have read them over and over but because I heard actors performing them eloquently onscreen. Even now, when Richard III’s opening lines play in my head, I hear “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature / Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time…” in Olivier’s effete snarl. Thinking of Hamlet beseeching his father’s ghost to speak to him, I hear Kenneth Branagh’s urgent, hot-blooded shouts as he races after the phantom in his monumental four-hour film of Hamlet; one line rushing into another, the heartfelt inflection he gives to “father” when saying “I’ll call thee Hamlet, king, father, royal Dane…” And though I’m not a big fan of Branagh’s earlier Much Ado About Nothing, I’ll never forget the languid scene where the camera pans across picnickers, revealing Emma Thompson’s Beatrice reading the lines “Sigh no more, ladies…” from a book.

But being rapt thus by renditions of the actual words also means that a question arises when I encounter the many wonderful non-English adaptations, Kurosawa’s Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood, and Gulzar’s Angoor (A Comedy of Errors) among them: does a Shakespeare film in another language count as real Shakespeare? That sounds like a conservative thought, and maybe it is, but it does invite us to ask: what is the Bard’s “essence”?

We can agree that it isn’t mainly in his plots, most of which were borrowed or outright copied from other sources. (It’s amusing when people say that so many Hindi films about star-crossed lovers – Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, Ek Duje ke Liye, etc – have come from Romeo and Juliet, given that the basic story of that play, which goes back at least to Ovid, was old hat even in the 16th century.) The rhythm of the language is important, of course, but more important are the associations it creates, how it depicts individual psychologies against the backdrop of universal concerns; how, in the best plays, thematic depth coexists with surface frivolity and
bawdiness, and comedy yields to something very dark, or vice versa. And I see this spirit in scenes like the one in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela where bluster and wordplay between a group of young men turns into something serious before most of them realize what is happening, and Ram’s (Ranveer Singh) hands become irrevocably stained with blood. Or in Angoor, where the peerless Deven Varma (as Bahadur, a version of one of the Dromios) has a bhaang-induced hallucination in the middle of an existential crisis. Or in Bhardwaj’s Haider, where the gravediggers’ song “So Jao” is a reminder of the links between Shakespeare and the episodic structures and musical interludes of popular Hindi film.

The purists might not care for these sorts of adaptations, but if they are the same purists who decry modern-dress retellings or insist on anodyne, static-camera, Oxbridge-accented productions, I think we may safely dismiss them with Fluellen’s elegant words from Henry V – “Avaunt, you cullions” – and pray that a bear follows them off the stage.


P.S. A separate piece could of course be written about the use of Shakespearean lines in non-Shakespeare films – as in the beautiful, elegiac scene in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine where Doc Holliday (played by Victor Mature) helps an actor out in a saloon by completing Hamlet’s “mortal coil” speech. The scene isn’t just an interlude, it is vital to this story about the clash between civilisation and savagery; and you can see lawman Wyatt Earp, watching from the side, looking at Holliday with new eyes:

[Related posts: Polanski’s Macbeth; Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider; Welles on Falstaff]

1 comment:

  1. Watch the 2014 Bengali film Hrid Majharey by Ranjan Ghosh, starring Abir Chatterjee and Raima Sen (daughter of Moon Moon). Not sure the maths prof as Othello and the cardiac surgeon as Desdemona works for me as a storyline but watching someone else self-destruct always keeps one attention. And the Andamans locale is quite beautiful. The witch/soothsayer in the beginning (Macbeth?) is also a nice touch.