“Much Ado” and “The Tempest”
June 24, 2013
I love Shakespeare. Passion, emotion, verve, language. Oh, the language. I’ve read plays by other Elizabethan playwrights, and it becomes clear very quickly why we still read and study and perform and make movies of Shakespeare. He’s so much better than his contemporaries. It’s like watching the Green Lantern movie then going to see Captain America. You feel this profound relief that it’s not the genre that’s the problem. It’s, you know, the writing.
I especially love “concept” Shakespeare. Shakespeare done not in a classic Elizabethan style, but in wild settings with wild interpretations. Sometimes it goes very badly. (Don’t talk to me about the Macbeth I saw where they had drumming. Through the ENTIRE play.) I’ve seen The Comedy of Errors done as early 80’s punk, Hamlet as 1940’s minimalist, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream where the play-within-a-play was done as a kabuki parody that was so hilarious my gut hurt for a week from laughing so hard. I’ve seen Two Gentlemen of Verona twice — one version played it straight, the other played it as farce, and the different interpretations made them totally different plays. I love that about Shakespeare. It’s why I’ll always go see a Shakespeare play, no matter how many times I’ve already seen it.
I’ve been so looking forward to the new Much Ado About Nothing. And not just because of the opportunity of finally getting to see a Joss Whedon film where nobody gets suddenly impaled by anything. (Although there is that whole metaphorical speech about Cupid’s darts. Hmmm….) There’s already been one spectacularly beloved film version of Much Ado (I haven’t seen it in years, I should go do that soon), and I was fascinated by the possibilities, the black and white, the modern setting, all the actors who I’d never think of doing Shakespeare. Conclusion?
I liked it just fine. It wasn’t unabashedly joyous like the Branagh version. But it was awfully fun. The drunkest Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen. Every other scene, somebody was pouring a drink. Mostly, it was like seeing a bunch of familiar faces and friends get together to put on a show. I had somehow failed to notice beforehand that Sean Maher was in it, was pleasantly surprised when he showed up, and he was great. So was Fillion. It wasn’t until I got home and was working out how to interpret the modern setting — guns, cars, bodyguards with sunglasses — that I figured out that they were all mobsters. This was like a 1950’s mobster noir comedy. Or something.
Also this weekend I finally got to watch The Tempest that came out a few years ago, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Helen Mirren as “Prospera.” What a brilliant bit of casting, yes? Taymor directed Titus, which is without a doubt one of the best movie adaptations of Shakespeare of all time. The Tempest isn’t quite there. It’s beautiful, interesting, with a fabulous cast, but I don’t think it quite hit the mark. One thing it did do that I wasn’t expecting was offer a new interpretation of the ending. This is one of my favorites of Shakespeare, and the ending is almost always presented as a victory: Prospero has manipulated events to this point, has returned to power and brought his enemies low. He rejects his magic because he doesn’t need it anymore. In this version, Mirren’s Propsera is melancholy and grief stricken at the end. She says the line “every third thought shall be my grave,” and I realized — she’s already dying. She’s done all this because she doesn’t have time to wait anymore. She has to arrange her affairs, make sure her daughter Miranda is taken care of, get rid of her magic so no one else will use it, and she has to do it all before she dies. It’s a desperately sad reading of the play, and I think I really like it. I wonder if this reading would work with a male actor in the role. Despite its flaws, this film does something that good performances of Shakespeare should do — show us the plays in a new light, teach us something new about them.