Some of us live in places where we can see Shakespeare performed live on stage, others of us don't. Even if we do live in areas where we can see Shakespeare live it still usually means we won't see him more than once or twice a year - unless there's a Shakespearean summer festival going on or we live in Stratford-on-Avon, England (where the Royal Shakespeare Company performs). So what to do if we want to see Shakespeare acted out, the way it was meant to be seen and the way it should be seen - as opposed to simply seeing it printed on the page of a book?
The world of the dvd, fortunately, gives us many options, and if readers want to send in their favourite choices, I'll be happy to post them. In the meantime, I'm going to make a list - and check it twice - of the dvds I've seen and which I think bring Shakespeare alive. My main goal in doing this is to get persons who have been slain by Shakespeare in school to come back from the dead, like Juliet, and enjoy a world in which Shakespeare's plays add a certain depth and lustre to their lives.
I should say that some of the Shakespeare productions on dvd are done like movies - without a stage - and others are films of a stage presentation. In most cases, all of the dialogue is subtitled, enormously helpful if you are trying to get the hang of Elizabethan English. But there's nothing like the thrill of realizing you understand what's going on without using close captioning. The great benefit is you can concentrate on the faces and the acting and not the printed word. This can happen more quickly than you think for I have seen it happen with both my children, while watching a Shakespeare dvd, in no very great amount of time.
MY FIRST LIST (SECOND LIST TO FOLLOW IN ANOTHER BLOG ON ANOTHER DAY)
This is kind of a warm up piece that showcases the enduring power of Shakespeare when it's done right. It's something of a reality TV piece. A young actor returns to a poor district of London and literally plucks people off the street, including a lot of youth, holds auditions and forms a cast of non-actors and non-English majors in order to perform a modern dress version of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). How they get there - learning to act for the first time in their lives and memorizing Shakespeare for the first time in their lives - is simply an incredible story to watch unfold. It transforms the lives of the young men and women involved in the production quite literally.
THE REDUCED SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
You gotta love this. A three man team does all of Shakespeare's plays in 90 minutes and they do it with a huge dose of humour. Every play gets mentioned or touched on. Some get more air time than others, but it's a great introduction to The World of William especially for those who have never been interested in anything to do with Shakespeare before. Hilarious.
*Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close - gorgeous sets and excellent acting, a crisp pace that never allows the great play to flag - directed by Franco Zeffirelli
*Hamlet with Kenneth Branagh as actor and director - a longer version but utterly superb - perhaps start with Zeffirelli's take and return later to Branagh's
ROMEO & JULIET
*Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli - beautiful sets and cinematography, as per usual with Zeffirelli - the best historical version of the play
*Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann - a superb modern dress gangsta version of the play - all the Elizabethan script is there but the setting is urban 21st century and the colours are uber vivid
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
*Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's comedy about how friends conspire to make two enemies, a man and a woman, fall in love - Kenneth Branagh acts and directs - Denzel Washington is in on this one and so is Keanu Reeves - excellent
*Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt, Kenneth Branagh once more doing a magnificent job acting and directing - simply one of the greatest performances of ANYTHING - how's this for a cast? Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Christian Bale - unbelievable
*Macbeth, the dark and powerful tragedy - the only dvd worth getting is done in a Braveheart and Rob Roy style, where the Scots actually look like medieval Scots - the version you want has Sean Connery's son Jason in the lead role doing an excellent job - it was the winner of the Silver Screen Award at the 30th US International Film Festival (1997) - forget Polanski's blood bath - this is the one to watch until Kenneth Branagh gives us a version - or Sir Ian McKellen
*King Lear set in medieval Japan and directed by Akira Kurosawa - entitled RAN - totally absorbing
This is enough to start with, especially if you're trying to seriously cuddle up with William for the first time. Best of luck and I hope you find some joy and entertainment - and truth.