A review of the Shakespeare Retold series

All in all, Shakepeare Retold is an excellent set of DVDs providing rich entertainment complex enough for multiple viewings and entertaining enough to engage viewers away from all other distractions. Drama like this is rare enough without the added enjoyment of Shakepearean puns, subtle but well handled universalities, and a cast featuring the very best in acting from the United Kingdom.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Shakespeare Retold
ABC DVD
AUD$29.95each

Shakespeare Retold is a clever, classy and beautifully rendered series of modern productions based on the original. The way in which the characters and scenes are transposed to modern day England is often masterful, and lovers of good drama in general and the bard in particular will be amused, wrought, and titillated with all the power and intensity of the original works. You don’t need to know your Shakespeare to enjoy these tales, as they work perfectly in their modern day context – but they are all rife with puns and references to the originals, and recognising how cleverly the original weaves in with the new adds to the pleasure.

Macbeth
Rated: M, Duration: 97 mins, Released: 2006

The one tragedy in the collection is Macbeth, and it lives up to the genre. The bloody and competitive setting of a London restaurant makes a perfect transition for a tale of wanton ambition and betrayal. Utterly modern, the work nevertheless maintains a classical and timeless sense, partly because Shakespeare is quoted line for line throughout the drama, and partly because the extraordinary dynamics are kept throughout. The piece opens with a bit of exquisite humour with the dustmen in the role of the witches, and ugly sisters they are indeed, as they predict the future with joyous glee eating their sloppy breakfast amidst a rubbish tip. The dustbin men are the only thing funny in this drama though. James McAvoy, who is brilliant in the role, slowly wends his way from happy, passionate head chef to the ruined Machiavellian bloodsoaked man who welcomes his death. In the meantime, everyone else dies too, and the blood flows more freely than in an abattoir. This isn’t for the faint-hearted. The fantastic acting isn’t limited to McAvoy either. Keeley Hawkes is a perfect Lady Macbeth, combining steely ambition with vulnerability as she keeps washing her hands. Joseph Milson’s Billy Banquo is authentic as Macbeth’s betrayed best friend, Vincent Regan is both loveable and hateful as the exploitative Duncan, and Toby Kebbell a convincingly poor heir apparent as Malcolm. The constant puns (“when pigs fly”, or references to “the Scottish Chef”) are as clever as the slow spiral into madness, both for the two protagonists and for the play itself. This is an intense, dramatic offering which will leave the viewer drained in the best way possible.

The Taming of the Shrew
Rated: M, Duration: 96 mins, Released: 2006

Of all the offerings in the Shakespeare Retold series, The Taming of the Shrew is, in my view, the best. As with Macbeth, the parallels to the original are subtly but perfectly handled, with full quotations, and clever twists that ensure that the original is never far from the viewer’s minds, but the story succeeds on its own as well. Kate and Bianca are wealthy sisters who are poles apart. Kate is a nasty tempered politician (the shrew) who has nominated for party leadership. Bianca is a sweet tempered model. When Bianca tells one of her many suitors that she’ll only marry him when her sister marries, he goes about pairing her with his eccentric friend Petrucio. The film is full of moments that continue to be “laugh-outloud” funny on multiple viewings. The characters are perfectly acted by the sexy (even in fishnets) Rufus Sewell who was nominated for best actor for the role by the BAFTA Television Awards. Shirley Henderson is a magnificent shrew who manages to make her pretty face utterly shrewish through a kind of tense gurning which is as funny as it is effective while shouting “swivel”. Both Sewell and Henderseon give their characters multidimensionality as they vacillate between vulnerability and toughness, but it is their mutual respect which wins the day. As with the original, everyone gets married and the ending is happy, but it’s hard to know who has tamed. Kate’s final speech is as ironic and tender as the original. Henderson deserves a nomination for this role too.

Much Ado About Nothing
Rated: M, Duration: 90 mins, Released: 2006

Although still clever and entertaining, the multiple award nominated Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t quite reach the heights of grandeur or hysteria that The Taming of the Shrewdoes. In this remake, Beatrice and Benedick are newscasters whose mutual hatred is so overt that there are clearly feelings between them. Meanwhile their respective best friends Claude, a sports presenter and Hero, a weathergirl are madly in love in an apparently simple match made in heaven. You don’t have to be a Shakepearean to guess the plot twist, but again, the clever weaving of Shakepearean lines, the subtle modern humour, and the excellent acting makes this a memorable comedy. The tension between Beatrice and Benedick is a trifle exaggerated, as in the original, and Billie Piper has a kind of naïve gormlessness, which generally works. There enough pathos throughout the play, mingled with the slapstick to keep things working forward, and of course everyone gets what they desire in the end, although writer David Nicholls shows admirable restraint in keeping things open for Hero and Claude. The morality is well managed. As the film highlights the destructive force of jealousy–Claude’s crime is more than simply making a mistake or being made a fool of, but of lacking in trust possible, as Hero suspects, because of his own untrustworthy nature. While Beatrice and Benedick’s true love twists and turns in ways that are often funny, but perhaps turn just a little too easily once they past the mid-way point. All in all though, this is excellent comedy, with plenty of passion, good acting, and a good deal of clever invention.

A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
Rated: PG, Duration: 96 mins, Released: 2006

Not my favourite Shakespeare play, I’ve always found A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream to be a little silly, and this remake is no exception. However, silliness and perhaps a bit of overt chaos aside, the quality of the acting, excellent adaptation, and attractive modern setting makes this rendition enjoyable enough. Theo and Polly have take their children to Dream Park Holiday Centre to celebrate their daughter Hermia’s engagement to James – the respectable boy next door. Unfortunately Hermia’s parents like James more than Hermia does, and when her real, but unemployed, love Zander comes to save her, she has to fess up. Meanwhile, fairies Oberon and Titania are also having troubles and the naughty hobgoblin Puck decides to have a bit of fun by mixing up the love potions and turning a bad comedian into a donkey. The humour is a little less subtle and a lot more slapstick than in other comedies and can get a little over the top and unreal at times, but that’s the point. This is the only one of the remakes which might be suitable for children (10+) and there’s plenty of sparkle and glamour to keep things moving. Imelda Staunton shines in her role as the soft mother and long suffering wife. Her transformation is the most poignant in the play. Dean Lennox Kelly is a convincing Puck with just enough spark in his boyish eyes to justify the mischievousness.

All in all, Shakepeare Retold is an excellent set of DVDs providing rich entertainment complex enough for multiple viewings and entertaining enough to engage viewers away from all other distractions. Drama like this is rare enough without the added enjoyment of Shakepearean puns, subtle but well handled universalities, and a cast featuring the very best in acting from the United Kingdom.

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