arisha: (escaflowne mystic moon)
[personal profile] arisha
In March, when I posted my updated list of Shakespeare plays I'd seen, I was less than pleased to find that in four years I'd only added two plays to my list. I meant to watch some more Shakespeare over the summer, but only managed the James Mason Julius Caesar. In the middle of October I was feeling quite frustrated with myself about this, something like: "Sarah, you keep saying you want to watch more Shakespeare, don't you? So just do it already!!" At which point I decided that, over the next few months, I was going to watch all of them.

This project has been moving along at a slower pace than I originally anticipated, but at the moment I am almost halfway through and I am really enjoying it. I see this more as a beginning than as an end point; I know some of the versions I've watched have not been the best and I'm definitely looking forward to finding out more about the plays, watching different versions of them, etc. I decided to watch the plays instead of read them for two main reasons:

1) They were written to be watched. It is actually really bizarre to me that so many people see Shakespeare as something primarily to be read. It's really frustrating to me that this is how a lot of English classes introduce the plays to their students. But that's a rant for another time. :)

2) I just really suck at reading plays. It takes a huge amount of effort for me to picture characters doing more than just standing there reciting their lines in a monotone. I need help in order to figure out what tone each scene is going for. Luckily this is not a problem I have with any other writing! (Except, mysteriously, certain parts of the Harry Potter series ...)

What follows are some brief thoughts on the first seventeen plays I've watched during what I am calling my Shakespeareathon. As most of these plays are ones that I watched for the first time, I fully admit that I might not have anything interesting or original to say, and that I may even be totally misinterpreting parts of them. But if you're interested (and don't mind a few SPOILERS), read on~!

1. The Merchant of Venice
I tried to start with the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus, but the abundance of shaky cam gave me a headache and I couldn't finish it. So I watched the Al Pacino Merchant of Venice, which I'd seen at least twice before. Now that I'm further into this project I feel like one of the goals is to watch a version of each play that I haven't seen before, which makes me feel like this is cheating, but ... oh well? I'm sure I'll see another version one day. I really like this play although I never know what to make of it. This particular version is really sympathetic to Shylock, even adding a few scenes that make him (and Jessica) look better and the Christian characters look worse. I like this and I think it mostly works ... but I'm not sure it's what Shakespeare was going for. If Shylock is the villain, then this story is a fairy tale with an appropriately happy ending. If he's more complex than that, then the play is the story of how a group of friends destroy his life and suffer no consequences for it. On the one hand, Shylock is made of stereotypes ... on the other, from my 21st Century point of view it is very difficult to interpret the "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech as anything but sympathetic. So I have no idea how one is "supposed to" interpret this play but if I am allowed to see Shylock as sympathetic then I like it.

2. Twelfth Night
I watched the version that has Alec Guinness as Malvolio. It was an older version with, from what I can tell, not very much in the way of budget, so that could very well have affected my opinion of it, but I definitely came away from it baffled as to why this play is so popular. It's two weird sitcom plots stitched together? And the end of Malvolio's plot is kind of evil? Perhaps one day I'll learn to like this one but at this point I don't get it.

3. Romeo and Juliet
I've seen "Romeo and Juliet" way more times than any other Shakespeare play, and I have rambled about it more too, so all I will say is that I watched the Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard movie. Definitely not the best version I've seen, but better than the reviews led me to expect. I read a couple articles about how this was one of the first Shakespeare plays filmed with sound, and how there was a lot riding on it as a result, which was really interesting. That perhaps accounts for some of the stiffness in the movie. I'm really glad that directors and actors have loosened up in more recent Shakespeare movies.

4. Hamlet
I watched the David Tennant movie, my third time watching "Hamlet" all the way through. Tennant was fairly entertaining and there was some neat work done with mirrors and camerawork (especially in the ghost scenes), but otherwise this was exactly as I expected it would be. I confess I don't get why "Hamlet" is considered the best of the best. There are some great lines and some memorable scenes but put them all together and I just find it really long and dreary. The tone is the same through the whole thing, I never feel any excitement or suspense. Maybe one day I'll learn to love it but I kind of suspect I won't ...

5. Much Ado About Nothing
I watched the Kenneth Branagh movie, in which both he and Emma Thompson were fantastic and hilarious. I don't like the "bickering means they're in love!" trope half as much as a lot of people seem to, but I very much enjoyed watching Branagh and Thompson here. Although when Beatrice told Benedick to kill Claudio, ugggghhhhhhh I really wanted him to. Claudio is terrible!! I was reading a blog post recently about how so many of Shakespeare's women end up with men who are definitely not worthy of them, so I guess it's a thing? But that doesn't make me any less frustrated about it. Overall I enjoyed watching the movie but I don't think I like this play as much as most people seem to.

Also, Michael Keaton as Dogberry was pretty perfect, even though his scenes felt like they were from a completely different movie.

6. Macbeth
"Macbeth" has been my favourite Shakespeare play since I read it in eleventh grade English, although I think I enjoyed the idea of it more than I actually enjoyed reading it - at the time I found it difficult and boring. Well, twelve years later and it's still my favourite Shakespeare play. I love that it's a story about a man who sets up his own downfall, I love the supernatural elements, I love how thoroughly dark it is. And of course I really like that it features one of Shakespeare's strongest and most memorable female characters. "Yet who would have thought the old man / to have had so much blood in him" is one of my favourite lines in Shakespeare, and "She should have died hereafter" is one of my favourite speeches. (Macbeth eulogizing his wife without any emotion is so far the only time I have teared up during this Shakespeareathon.) This time I watched the Patrick Stewart movie, and I really really loved it. The setting is modernized and not entirely realistic, but it's so dark and so perfect for this play. The only complaint I really have about the movie is that the dinner scene was a bit more manic than I would have liked. I would have preferred a much stronger focus on Banquo's ghost, but instead they give us a scene where the dinner guests dance with a mop?! Luckily, it managed to find its tone again after that. I really loved the scene where the Weird Sisters show Macbeth Banquo's descendents; the camerawork and editing made me feel like I was watching someone else's disjointed dream. And the final moments of the movie left me feeling unsettled for some time afterwards. After a less than spectacular start to my Shakespeareathon (and a month-long gap after "Much Ado," whoops!), I was really glad to find such a fantastic interpretation of my favourite of his plays.

7. The Tempest
I'd never seen this play before and didn't even read a summary before I watched it, which was the first time in the Shakespeareathon that I'd been so bold, haha! It was fun to not know what was going to happen next ... but unfortunately I didn't love this play. I watched the BBC version from the 1980s, and while I liked the way Ariel was portrayed, I feel like I would like this play more if I were to watch a version that gives Prospero's magic a stronger emphasis (and better special effects). I've watched bits and pieces of a couple other BBC versions, and my general impression is that they're perfectly watchable but somewhat bland. Like, apparently Prospero is supposed to be really angry with the people he shipwrecks on the island, but in this version the vibe I got from him was one of slight irritation. When I get to "Troilus and Cressida," we'll see what I think of the BBC version of a play I'm already familiar with ...

8. Julius Caesar
Over the summer I watched the movie that stars James Mason and Marlon Brando, and was blown away by Mark Antony's funeral speech. Casting Brando as Antony worked oddly well, at least for me, because for the entire beginning of the movie I was like "Pfft, Brando, what are you doing in this movie," but then he delivered the speech and I was really blown away. Both by his delivery and by the speech itself! I'd only ever heard the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" bit and had no idea that the rest of the speech was so smart. I just love how Antony gets the crowd to believe what he wants them to by consistently saying the opposite of what he means. The repetition of "and Brutus is an honourable man" is pretty brilliant. Unfortunately I don't think the second half of the play lives up to the first half, which I felt both when watching that version and when watching the super low budget 1950 version that I chose for the Shakespeareathon. (Although it could just be that I prefer talking scenes to battle scenes. Which I do.) I don't have much to say about the 1950 movie specifically ... it did some interesting things with shadows and camera angles, and I liked the way it had flashbacks during certain speeches, but you could definitely tell that most of the people in it weren't professional actors and you could definitely tell that the dialogue was all dubbed in afterwards!

9. Cymbeline
I watched the DVD of the Yukio Ninagawa production that came with the DVD of his "Troilus and Cressida." Perhaps watching this play in Japanese is cheating, or not in the spirit of the Shakespeareathon, or something, but whatever, it's my Shakespeareathon and I hadn't watched this DVD yet so I took this opportunity to do so. This production gave Cloten a bunch of physical comedy that I found entertaining enough that I was actually really disappointed he didn't make it to the end of the play, although I can easily imagine that in a production with a different tone I would really dislike him. The actor who played Iachimo was really awesome and slimey, and I loved how the sets for the Rome scenes looked like Heian era Japan. But I didn't love how the last like twenty minutes are characters explaining to each other things that the audience already knows. In any event, I'm now really looking forward to the Ethan Hawke movie version. I don't know whether or not it will be good, but it certainly looks like it takes a VERY different approach to the play, and I am super curious to see how it turns out.

10. As You Like It
I watched the movie with Laurence Olivier as Orlando. Rosalind only gets a personality about a half an hour before the end, and as such this is not my favourite version of this play. Right now I guess I love this play based solely on the local production I saw some years ago, where Rosalind was SERIOUSLY AWESOME the whole way through. Fingers crossed I get to see another seriously awesome Rosalind again one day!

11. Richard II
I watched the Hollow Crown version starring Ben Whishaw. So far, "Richard II" has been the best surprise of this whole Shakespeareathon. Despite having enjoyed "Richard III," I was definitely expecting the history plays to be really dull and stiff and just not entertaining at all, and was thoroughly surprised by how much I LOVED this one. It's a character study of a man who loses his identity, which in this case at least I find pretty fascinating, and the language is so beautiful and poetic. I'm really curious to watch other productions of it, but at the same time I'm terrified to, because Whishaw's portrayal of Richard is so interesting and so unique that I'm afraid I'll just automatically hate anyone else's. And how great is the deposition scene, oh my gosh. I don't think this movie is perfect (it goes a little overboard with the symbolism), but I enjoyed it so much that I watched it two days in a row and still wanted to watch it again.

If I start listing lines that I enjoyed we will be here all day, but I just want to note that this movie makes "Go thou, and fill another room in hell" Richard's last line, and what a fantastic last line that is.

12. Henry IV (Part 1)
I watched the Hollow Crown version starring Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. This was another very pleasant surprise! I think the Hollow Crown series does a great job of making these plays feel less like Difficult and Imposing Shakespeare Plays and more like regular movies; the acting and the editing and the way scenes are sometimes shuffled around or cut together makes them very watchable, although it does mean they're not as loyal to the original texts as they might be. I really enjoyed this movie, especially the scenes in the Boar's Head, especially the scene where Falstaff impersonates Prince Hal, which moves very smoothly through a whole bunch of different emotions. (And Tom Hiddleston's impression of Jeremy Irons' Henry IV is pretty amazing on top of that!) I have to admit, though, that I am confused by Falstaff. Before watching this, I had the impression that he was this fantastic, super loveable comic character, but after watching this (and the next play after it) I just felt like he's ... pathetic? Like the whole time he thinks that he and Hal are the best of best friends and he's totally oblivious to the fact that Hal is pulling away from him and getting irritated with him and planning to banish him. Maybe it's just the way this movie portrays him? Having him interrupt Hal's coronation like an idiot certainly didn't help endear him to me.

Well that ended on a negative note but I really did enjoy this movie, and watched it twice too!

13. Henry IV (Part 2)
Before starting the Shakespeareathon I didn't realize that he wrote plays that link up like these Hollow Crown ones do. It was really cool to watch what's basically a movie sequel, except that it's Shakespeare. And I'm really glad that I didn't read a summary of this before I watched it, because I was totally fooled by a certain part that I refuse to spoil for you! I didn't love the scenes of Falstaff recruiting soldiers (although his new servant was super adorable), but I really enjoyed the rest of it.

14. Henry V
Unfortunately I think I liked this the least of the Hollow Crown movies. I guess I feel like the characters were the focus of the first three, and the battles were the focus of this one, something that pretty much guarantees I wouldn't enjoy it as much. I don't know if this is the right word, but there's so much less interiority in this play - I never felt like I knew what Henry was thinking. In the scene where he learns of Bardolph's death, the movie included a flashback to him hanging out with Bardolph in the tavern, but I'm not sure whether it's supposed to represent what Henry is thinking or if it's there for the benefit of the audience members who forgot about it. Henry himself seems to have no reaction. And then at the end when he tells the princess he loves her, it comes out of nowhere. The DVD extras led me to believe that every English child learns the big speeches from this play, that it's considered super important and patriotic and etc. etc., but as someone without that connection I was just frustrated that I'd watched this character in two previous plays but now suddenly felt like I didn't know who he was anymore.

In Shakespeare Uncovered, Hiddleston talks about the scene where Henry goes into great and terrible detail about what will happen to the citizens of the French city if they don't surrender, and he says that he thinks Henry scares himself with the things he's saying. So I was excited to see that happen, and was pretty disappointed when I saw no sign of it in the movie itself. Hopefully one day I will learn to love this one just as much as the plays that precede it.

And now I'm sad that we have to wait till 2016 for the second Hollow Crown series. I can't wait~~~

15. The Comedy of Errors
I watched this version, which I found through a simple YouTube search and which seems to be a high school production done in a park. As you might expect, some of the acting is not that great, but I thought all of the leads did a really great job and in this play I think that's all you really need. I also liked how they weren't afraid to change some of the lines for humourous effect. I laughed a lot while watching this! I like how this play takes a totally ridiculous premise - Antipholus has been separated from his identical twin Antipholus and Dromio has been separated from his identitcal twin Dromio and this is the day they will be reunited - and just runs with it. I don't always have a lot of love for Shakespeare's comedies, but I liked this one a lot.

16. All's Well That Ends Well
I watched a version that was filmed in the Globe Theatre, so it was cool to watch just for that, but ... this play. I was enjoying it quite a lot up until Helena slept with Bertram while he was under the impression she was someone else. Apparently this trope is named the "bed trick" but by modern standards it's rape, and it's gross that it causes Bertram to fall in love with Helena. And there's some other less than awesome gender-y stuff in there too. After this I didn't feel like watching Shakespeare for a while.

17. Love's Labour's Lost
Another Globe Theatre production, another play where I liked the first half much better than the second half. The scene near the middle where Ferdinand, Berowne, Longueville and Dumaine are all spying on each other is FANTASTIC and the way this production staged and acted it had me in tears from laughing. After that, though, everything kind of went off the rails, and at the point where the climactic scene would usually go, instead there's a scene where the secondary characters put on a play ... ??? On top of the weird structure, there's so much talking in this play, a lot of which is made up of jokes that I just really didn't get. I suspect I would have to read this play in order to start to understand it, but I can't say yet whether or not that's going to happen.

Three more till halfway!! :D
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July 2015

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