For the "Clash of Civilizations" unit in the FutureLearn "Shakespeare and His World" course, we discussed "the outsiders" in Elizabethan society. I watched two productions of "Othello", first the Trevor Nunn film from 1990, with Ian McKellen as Iago and Willard White as Othello. This production is set in a vaguely American Civil War-era, I'm not entirely sure why, perhaps some commentary on race, though it doesn't quite carry through since if Othello is black he would not be a general, surely! -- but after a while it is not distracting. White is a majestic and compelling Othello, and McKellen is pure poison as Iago. Imogen Stubbs is delicate and trusting as Desdemona, and Zoë Wanamaker is excellent as Emilia, as is the rest of the cast.
I also watched the 1995 film with Irène Jacob, Laurence Fishburne, and Kenneth Branagh. Jacob was an unexpected choice, as she is a little old for Desdemona, and her accent was a little distracting, but she is lovely to look at and one can see why Othello was so taken with her, and she conveys a real sense of shy love for him, and distress when he is cruel to her later in the story. Fishburne handles himself very well both with the verse and the magnetism of the soldierly Othello, and with his headlong descent into jealousy, and Branagh is brilliant as usual as Iago. Iago's motivations on the page seem not entirely clear, but Branagh's Iago certainly makes us feel that he himself feels justified.
I don't think I quite agreed with the director's choice to make it obvious that Cassio slips a dagger to Othello in the last scene, perhaps because it's a little too ambiguous as to why he does it. I suppose we are to think that Cassio is allowing Othello "a noble exit", but it just doesn't ring true to me. It doesn't "ruin" the film for me, but the fact that it comes so near the end makes it stick in the mind longer, as it were, so it looms a bit larger than it should.
Last week the theme was "The Roman Example" and, instead of choosing the more obvious "Julius Caesar", Bate went with "Antony and Cleopatra," and so I watched the 1981 BBC Shakespeare production, with Colin Blakely and Jane Lapotaire. Colin Blakely is not someone I ever would have thought of as playing Mark Antony, but he does remarkably well, and he has the legs for it. Perhaps his working-class-yob air helps bring out the sense of Antony's being out of his depth here. This production goes for a rather Shakespearean look to it, with not Roman or Egyptian costumes, but "contemporary" Italian Renaissance ones. Not one of my favorite plays, but with some really gorgeous poetry.
For this last week of play-viewing, titled "O Brave New World", I watched 1980's BBC Shakespeare production of "The Tempest", here with David Dixon as a seriously creepy Ariel and Michael Hordern as Prospero. This version starts out with an exciting storm, but beyond that it turns bland, with little sense of magic or wonder. Christopher Guard is dull as Ferdinand, and there is no chemistry between him and Pippa Guard (his cousin in real life) who plays Miranda. Warren Clarke is a weirdly hairy yet effective Caliban, but other than a mildly amusing turn from Nigel Hawthorne as Stephano, Hordern is the only one who is at all interesting. A shame, really.
(By the way, despite the much-vaunted premise of the BBC Shakespeare series being that the plays are produced with minimal cuts, the Ambrose DVD version I have is surely edited, as I've seen images of this fey Ariel sprouting enormous wings and alighting on a table at one point in the play, which is certainly not in the one I saw. Good heavens, I would have remembered that. Iris, Ceres, and Juno appear in the credits, yet their lines, in IV.i, are not here. Curiously, the DVD box gives the running time as 150 minutes, while both IMDB and Wikipedia give it as 124 or 125 minutes.)
Lastly, I watched the 2010 version directed by Julie Taymor, with Helen Mirren in the role of Prospero, rewritten for her as Prospera, wife of the Duke, who becomes Duchess upon her husband's death and then is banished as Prospero is in the original play. This actually works pretty well here, so is not terribly distracting, but it does of course lend some different aspects with a mother/daughter relationship being one of the central themes, instead of a father/daughter one. I don't always like Taymor's interpretations -- I didn't much care for her "Titus Andronicus" though that may be as much Anthony Hopkins's fault as Taymor's -- but I thought that this film was really wonderful, and wonderful in the sense that Shakespeare would have used the word, too. Taymor really uses the capabilities of film to convey a sense of magic, things that could not be done on the stage -- Ariel's shimmering transparency, for instance, as in this photo of Ben Whishaw and Helen Mirren. In the BBC version, Ariel dashes off and, jumping into the air, simply disappears into a film cut, which even in 1980 I found anticlimactic, but here he leaves a vapor trail across the sky that really gives a sense of Ariel's otherworldliness. I also found Prospera's relationship with Ariel very touching, possibly due to cuts -- I don't really know the text especially well -- but I'm sure very much due to Mirren herself, the way that she speaks to him, sometimes rather cruelly, but with great fondess certainly, and that she takes his gentle chiding, towards the end, and accepts it, and learns from it. All of the supporting actors here are excellent, although perhaps Chris Cooper was the least effective with the verse, though his physical presence as the jealous brother Antonio certainly works very well. I usually find Russell Brand exhausting, to be honest, but here he was well-cast as the jesterlike Trinculo, playing off the more stolid Alfred Molina as Stephano. Djimon Hounsou is excellent as Caliban, not-quite-human yet profoundly moving at times in his primal humanity. It was also a pleasure to see Tom Conti again, perfectly cast as the gentle courtier Gonzalo, with his faintly tedious nattering.
This series of "play-going" was an interesting exercise in itself, besides the online course, in watching sometimes wildly different productions hard on the heels of each other. It's curious that, traditionalist that I tend to be, I often found the stagier productions more dull that the modern ones, even though sometimes I deplore the tendency of directors to feel that they need to fizz up Shakespeare for modern audiences (I didn't think Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" worked very often).
PS, I've recently seen an excellent and hilariously funny production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" which really brought this lesser-known play to life for me -- it's the Globe production from 2008 (revived in 2010), with Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff and Sarah Woodward and Serena Evans as Mistresses Ford and Page, respectively. We all laughed so much -- even the girls, who think Shakespeare is "boring" -- that our sides hurt.