Culture

Shakespeare on the Big Screen: Finding Shakespeare in Film Part II

Susannah Carson is an American author, editor, and academic. She received her Ph.D. from Yale, after earning graduate degrees at Paris III, La Sorbonne-Nouvelle and Lyon II, L’Université des Lumières. Her work has appeared in scholarly publications, newspapers, and magazines, and she has edited two volumes of literary essays:  A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Authors on Why We Read Jane Austen and Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors.

In the first part of these reflections, I considered what I take to be the greatest reversal in Western dramatic art: the work of finding a story shifting from the actors being fabulous to the audience quieting down and paying more attention. It happens in Shakespeare, and we can even glimpse one of the lines in which the new possibilities might have first occurred to him. Love’s Labour’s Lost is an early play, for the most part exuberant rhythmic rhyme, suited to a court party or pit enthusiasms – and yet there is a curious moment at the end when the momentum is suspended. The three young men have proposed marriage to the three young women. Will they accept? Will the play end in happy-ever-after? In every production I have seen, the entire audience falls silent. You can’t help but lean forward, even if you know what the Princess (speaking also for her ladies) responds, because it is a line of such simple poetry that it expands beyond itself, and beyond the play, and says something that only Shakespeare could say about love. It is not giddy; it is not fatalistic; it is not entirely lost; it is the perfect ending to the play: “A time, methinks, too short to make a world-without-end bargain in.”

Throughout his development as a playwright, Shakespeare learned to exploit moments such as this to get audiences to be quiet so that he could create lines of such delicate balance and universal relevance. And that’s what makes Shakespeare available for film. Those archival “films,” which merely record live plays qua plays, create a distance and fail to engage us. But those films which are true to what it is to be a film can also find the chance to welcome life and character in Shakespeare. I was speaking with Sir Ben Kingsley, an enigmatic Feste in Sir Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night, who observed that in the presence of a good director he can be at his most publically private. Not being an actor myself, I asked him to untangle the oxymoron, but he just shrugged and said he couldn’t explain it except to say that it’s his job to reveal (he couldn’t say what it was he was revealing exactly; it wasn’t his job to know) and that it was the camera’s job to capture his revealing.

Not long after, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rory Kinnear, who commented on the difficulty of knowing how much of what was going on behind his eyes as Bolingbroke was being captured and would appear on television screens across Britain tuned into the BBC Hollow Crown series. If there’s too much going on behind the eyes, then Bolingbroke seems like his intentions are other than what he says (that he is trying to take over from Richard II), but if there’s not enough then he seems like a bit of a belligerent dolt, and so is hard to sympathize with, and for the story to work the audience needs to feel some balancing connection with Richard’s successor.

James Earl Jones commented that in his film of Othello, Sir Laurence Olivier rolls his eyes – an expression which had no doubt done the trick on stage, but which seemed a bit too “oh woe is me” in film – despite the rest of the performance being deftly transposed. On film it was too close; the gesture was exaggerated beyond its original intention.

Similarly, Ralph Fiennes told me that he was interested in the new possibilities in sympathizing with Coriolanus – a difficult character who attracts both our love and our hatred – that would be revealed through cinematic close-up; one of the resulting images was that of Ralph as Coriolanus, with his light blue eyes speaking pain and defiance amidst a face covered in the dark grime and blood of battle. He observed that when you’re that close to a face you can’t not feel a human connection – no matter what other resistant thoughts you might have about the character.

Ralph was also able to have Brian Cox play a more avuncular Menenius who, rather than dictate what ought to be done, offers heartfelt, well-considered counsel, thereby permitting even more moral texture. Having done Coriolanus before on stage with a virulent Volumnia (played by Barbara Jeffers), Ralph could experiment with a quieter Volumnia in Vanessa Redgrave: She was so convinced she was right, she could say her lines softly. Both versions of Volumnia were strong, and illustrate the different media: a soft Volumnia on stage wouldn’t be heard; a virago Volumnia on film would have been unsympathetic.

In her film of The Tempest, which she directed twice before on stage, Julie Taymor wanted to work with Helen Mirren as Prospero – and so changed the character to Prospera. It is possible that the success of this transformation was in part due to the same reason Ralph could have a quietly compelling Volumnia. Can women in power do Renaissance bombast as well on stage? Probably, and yet there’s something to be said for the best Shakespearean actors of our generation – women and men alike – knowing how to combine classic stage articulation with Sir Ben’s revealing and Rory’s careful measuring of inwardness and expression.

Going to the Globe, even today, you can see the eyes – it’s not like being at Wembley Stadium. But on film you can’t not look; you can’t not see and feel like you’re being seen; you can’t not become involved. You must engage with the best Shakespeare films.

If you can, go to the Globe, or to any live performance of Shakespeare. As Eve Best writes, it feels like everyone is in it together. There’s an electricity of live performance. Eamonn Walker writes that when he played Othello it felt like the whole theatre was about to charge the stage to stop him from killing Desdemona. Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director, writes that we go to the theatre because as a group we’re collectively smarter than we are alone at our computers. It’s an act of art; it’s an act of life.

And to approach something of that quality of experience, the best Shakespeare films don’t try to reproduce what makes the Globe work, but exploit that other magnetism of film: It results in a personal involvement and draws you in; not everybody around you, but you, and asks you what you think, how you feel.

What do you think Prospera should do? Should she drown her books? Should Coriolanus attack Rome with the Volscians? How much does Feste know? How responsible is Othello for his fate? What is Bolingbroke really up to?

All these questions are already there in the original plays, and in the best films we experience these questions, and find ourselves plumbing our own souls for answers in a way that’s disconcerting and – as it has been for four hundred years – endlessly new.

Susannah Carson is an American author, editor, and academic. She received her Ph.D. from Yale, after earning graduate degrees at Paris III, La Sorbonne-Nouvelle and Lyon II, L’Université des Lumières. Her work has appeared in scholarly publications, newspapers, and magazines, and she has edited two volumes of literary essays:  A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Authors on Why We Read Jane Austen and Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors.

Like What You're Reading? Get the best of Signature, delivered to your inbox every week. Join the Signature newsletter