The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0721 Friday, 4 August 2006
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Friday, August 04, 2006
Subject: Going Away Present to All
The following appeared in The New York Times this morning.
Timeless Tales With a Modern Twist in 'ShakespeaRe-Told' - New York Times
By Alessandra Stanley
August 4, 2006
Timeless Tales With a Modern Twist in 'ShakespeaRe-Told'
A SCOTTISH chef carves up his boss, Duncan, king of the celebrity
A cross-dressing aristocrat tames a shrew aiming to become the next
Beatrice and Benedick are bickering co-anchors on a local news
broadcast, and Titania falls for Bottom in a tacky theme resort known as
Dream Park. There have been so many adaptations of Shakespeare that it
would seem almost mathematically impossible to find a fresh approach.
Yet the BBC series "ShakespeaRe-Told" manages just that. "Macbeth," "The
Taming of the Shrew," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "A Midsummer Night's
Dream" have been reconfigured into contemporary tales that are
deliciously far-fetched, yet faithful to the plays.
"Much Ado About Nothing," which starts off the series Sunday on BBC
America, transfers Shakespeare's comedy from Messina to a television
studio in Wessex; when Benedick overhears his colleagues discussing his
chemistry with Beatrice, it is through a microphone left open on the
set. "Macbeth," which is set in the stainless-steel kitchen of a trendy
three-star restaurant, is sleek film noir, with a touch of social
satire. "The Taming of the Shrew" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are
fanciful and captivating in their own ways.
Everyone loves to rewrite Shakespeare; some felt compelled to do it when
he was still alive. (John Fletcher, one of Shakespeare's collaborators,
wrote a rebutting sequel to "The Taming of the Shrew," called "The Tamer
Tamed.") The itch didn't end with "West Side Story," Peter Brook or
Kurosawa's "Ran." In the 1990's Shakespeare was Pretty-in-Pinked,
providing plot lines for high school comedies like the Leonardo DiCaprio
version of "Romeo and Juliet," and "10 Things I Hate About You," in
which the shrew has to be tamed before prom. Television followed suit:
"Skin," a short-lived 2003 Fox series, was "Romeo and Juliet" in "O.C."
clothing: the daughter of a Los Angeles pornography king and the son of
a smut-busting district attorney fall in love.
The BBC has returned Shakespeare to the adults. British television
writers were asked to create modern conceits for classic works, though
of course one reason Shakespeare endures is that he created heroes, and
especially heroines, who are far more modern than most of the characters
found in today's movies and TV shows.
Beatrice in "Much Ado" is a case in point, a witty, intelligent woman
who brings out the worst in her man by besting him in their war of
words. Sarah Parish ("The Wedding Date") plays Beatrice, and Damian
Lewis ("Band of Brothers," "The Forsyte Saga") plays Benedick, a vain,
charming television personality who is hired to work alongside the woman
he once dumped. There is a hint of sadness veining this version of
Shakespeare's romp. The story begins with a flashback to Beatrice and
Benedick three years earlier getting ready for a tryst: she scatters
rose petals on her bed; he packs a bag and scuttles out of town. But
besides that addition, the television script sticks fairly closely to
the play. In Act IV Beatrice is so enraged by Claudio's ill-treatment of
her cousin Hero that she exclaims: "O God, that I were a man! I would
eat his heart in the marketplace." In Wessex, Hero is the weather girl,
and Beatrice hollers, "I swear if I were a man I would eat his heart."
Some of the couple's verbal swordplay is rendered more loosely. As the
camera light turns green, Beatrice says sweetly, "You really do put the
W into anchorman, don't you?"
Benedick prides himself on being an eternal bachelor, until cupid
strikes. "Love is just one of those things a man grows into," he tells
himself. "Like jazz. Or olives."
"Macbeth" is as dark as the other plays are light, but it too dances
mischievously between Shakespeare's play and Cool Britannia. The three
witches are garbage men who begin the play in a deserted city dump,
feasting on sandwiches made from restaurant leftovers. ("When the
hurly-burly's done," one says.) They meet again to confront Joe Macbeth
and his Banquo, a fellow chef named Billy, and predict that the
restaurant will win three Michelin stars and soon belong to Joe.
Joe's wife, Ella, silkily seductive and ambitious, is a 40's femme
fatale. The theme to the classic film "Laura," plays in the background
as she slinks across the restaurant floor, straightening dinner knives
at immaculately set tables. She doesn't disparage Joe for being "too
full o' the milk of human kindness" to murder Duncan. But he guzzles
milk straight from the bottle, and as his guilt mounts, he hallucinates
that his milk moustache is made of blood. The scripts dispense with
iambic pentameter but make sly allusions to the original work,
"Macbeth" includes an inside joke about the actors' superstition against
ever saying Macbeth out loud, and instead referring to the work as "the
Scottish play." In Joe's kitchen, it is considered bad luck to say the
name of a famous, real-life Glasgow-born chef, Gordon Ramsay (who, as it
happens, was raised in Stratford-upon-Avon). When a hapless new
sous-chef says "Gordon Ramsay," a shocked hush descends and a chiding
co-worker mutters, "Just call him the Scottish Chef."
There are also allusions to contemporary life. Before she is tamed by
Petruchio, Katherine slaps her parliamentary aide because he left her
"inadequately prepared" for an interview with Jeremy Paxman, a real-life
anchor of the BBC's "Newsnight."
The only flaw with the series is that it doesn't go far enough. This BBC
canon cries out for "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Wal-Mart" or "King
Lear" as the Brooke Astor story ("How sharper than a serpent's tooth").
There are opportunities to see faithful productions of Shakespeare on
television; deviations can be just as much a pleasure. Everyone loves
Shakespeare, but love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
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