Shakespeare’s other screens

H to the Rizzo

Blogs are addictive things. I’ve set up some five or six over the past few years, not to give my petty views of the world but instead devoted to individual subjects where I could report on research discoveries. A couple did quite well – The Bioscope provided information on early and silent cinema and was reasonably popular among the select audience interested in such things; another, BardBox, never had much of a readership but seems to have been valued by a select few.

Rather brutally I have closed these down, or rather left them online as archives, but I shan’t be adding to them any more. The intention is to develop this blog as a central source for my diverse interests, even if that means an inevitable drop in readership (at least from The Bioscope’s occasional giddy heights). So there will be the occasional foray into silent cinema, and to into Shakespeare (and many other subjects).

The Passenger

The Shakespeare side of things I do want to keep going, somehow. I was a Shakespearean before I was ever a film enthusiast, and indeed it was imaginative films of Shakespeare’s plays (specifically Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight) that played a large part in my discovery of cinema in the first place. I became engrossed in Shakespearean filmography, co-edited a book on the subject which aimed to extend the idea Shakespearean film beyond the usual adaptations to include parodies, allusions, plot borrowings and the like (Walking Shadows), and oversaw the creation of an avowedly comprehensive online database of Shakespeare on film, television and radio.

But then I got diverted. In 2005 YouTube arrived on the scene, and I think the very first video I ever saw on the site was The Beatles in the 1964 television sketch based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (their management really didn’t quite know what to do with them at times). I fretted over the copyright infringement, but delighted in the opportunity to see a clip much talked about but seldom seen. But then YouTube started to offer more. Original videos based on Shakespeare’s plays started to appear. Amateur theatre companies filmed their productions; trailers for stage producions were produced; students were given assignments when they had to put Shakespeare into a modern video setting (cue endless Star Wars spoofs and rap Hamlets); actors put up audition tapes; lone artists created animations, mini-dramas and other works of sometimes delightful imagination on this platform that now gave them a voice where previously they had been silent.

My Dinner with André the Giant

Ever increasingly I started to lose interest in conventional Shakespeare feature films, and began to think that here was the new frontier. Admittedly there were tens of thousands of Shakespeare videos on YouTube of negligible worth, of passing interest only as a social phenomenon, but among the dross jewels were to be found. And such pearls. I’ve included five of my favourites in this post, videos which to my mind are every bit as original, creative, and worthy of scholarly attention as Shakespeare seen on film, television or the stage.

Look at the fabulous H to the Rizzo at the top of this post, for example. It’s a cool enough rap number to convince as the genuine article, but listen carefully (the words reproduced on its Vimeo page help) – it’s telling us a modernised version of Hamlet’s fate, from Horatio’s point of view:

As the sun begins to raise and blaze across my face,
Lost in deep space, empty place left in my chest,
Frozen blood halts my breath, cuz my main man left
Whats the next step?

Or try out The Passenger, one of many American high school English class projects where the pupils have been told to discover Shakespeare’s relevance by adapting to a modern idiom. So many such projects merely deliver annoying facetiouness, but this is something else – a slacker version of Troilus and Cressida mysteriously coded so that only the class could really know what was going on (my BardBox post attempts to decode it).

cymbeline

Alex Itin’s My Dinner with André the Giant is an hilarious piece of avant garde, mischievously mixing up Olivier’s Hamlet with Marlon Brando, Moby Dick, Wallace Shawn and the Kinks, and ending with as sweet a final dissolve as you will ever see. Actor Dominic Kelly’s take on the speech “Is there no way for men to be but women / Must be half-workers? We are all bastards” from Cymbeline is both a novel demonstration of his acting abilities and a thrilling fresh use of jump-cuts and open-air locations (he recites the speech while cycling).

And to finish off, how about the downright weird? Certainly you are unlikely to have seen anything quite like New York performance artist Borts Minorts’ Oberon v Titania, a quite mad mix of dance, off-the-wall-music and pantomime, all put over with tremendous energy entirely in keeping with the spirit of the play.

Oberon v Titania

I enjoyed putting BardBox together for the first couple of years, but gradually it became a chore, all the more so since not too many people seemed to be reading it. Maybe I was completely on the wrong track. Maybe those who continue to write earnest essays on the latest Branagh or Taymor have their eye on the more substantial works of art. Maybe all this YouTube stuff is sufficient only for a passing giggle, and that’s all.

Or maybe this is the early cinema all over again. In the 19100s/19102, while those who wanted the world to stand still continued to champion the stage, a new medium grew uncontrollably, avidly absorbing Shakespeare along the way. There were hundreds of one- and two-reel Shakespeare films made during the early years of film, their inventiveness determined by the constraints of length and the nature of cinema at that time (so silent, for example). You reimagined Shakespeare according to the tools at your command.

It has been been much the same case with Shakespeare on YouTube and Vimeo – you don’t film the whole play; rather you give expression to how Shakespeare has inspired you. The online Shakespeare video is about reinterpreting his works, and sharing in the culture of Shakespeare, through the media of our times. There are great works out there that are not being looked at enough, and not being thought about enough. They may not be there for long, because YouTube is such an insubstantial archive (several BardBox titles have disappeared, either through copyright infringement or simply because the artists chose to withdraw them). Cherish them while they are still around – they matter now.

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