Shakespeare and awkward teenagers

Julian Hermano and Sarah Taylor in Twelfth Grade (or whatever)
Julian Hermano and Sarah Taylor in Twelfth Grade (or whatever)

Not long after YouTube appeared in 2005, I started to take note of the phenomenon of online Shakespeare. I had been interested in Shakespeare and film for a long time – it was really Shakespeare that encouraged my interest in film in the first place – but here was something quite new. Previously Shakespeare film had been the preserve of production companies and television broadcasters, which led to a certain kind of Shakespearean film: professional, I guess. But YouTube was encouraging a quite different kind of Shakespeare film, one created largely by amateurs, with more enthusiasm than budget. The results were brief, ragged and often facetious. There were parodies, high school assignments, mashups, fan videos, audition pieces, and Lego animations. Few were ‘good’ in the understood sense of filmmaking, but this was a new world with new rules. I found these films to be inventive, funny, personal and eye-opening, and I started to take note of them.

I did so through a website called BardBox, which I launched in May 2008, adding new videos as I found them as blog posts, classifying them and giving a bit of commentary. Four years later I closed down the site, having decided that I’d collected enough examples to have made my point (around 150).

Four years later, I was compelled to start the site up again, partly because of the quatercentary celebration, but also because so many good and interesting original Shakespeare videos had appeared online in that time. Most significantly, there was a new kind of Shakespeare video, which hadn’t existed back in 2012, but which was redefining how you could adapt Shakespeare to modern-day screens, for modern-day audiences. For now we had Shakespearean web series.

Kate the Cursed, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew

What brought about this revolution was the huge success in 2012/13 of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. This Emmy award-winning YouTube series converted Pride and Prejudice into a modern day take of a mid-20s American grad student, who related her story through a series of video blogs, or vlogs (with an interesting echo of the epistolary early form of novels, i.e. told by letters, such as Pamela). Speaking in the language (verbal and visual) of the millions of YouTube’s core audience, it was a revelation. The sassy yet confessional vlogging form, expressed in short episodes issued on a regular basis, enlivened by winning performances from young performers, and with ingenious but not too slavish parallels to Jane Austen’s text, drew in a huge audience – and immediately encouraged imitators. Why not try The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, The New Adventures of Peter & Wendy, Northbound (Northanger Abbey set in New York), or dozens more.

Mac and Beth, an adaptation of (you’ve guessed it) Macbeth

Inevitably, Shakespeare was given the Lizzie Bennet treatment. A small host of Shakespearean web series have sprung up over the past two or three years, mostly produced by young amateurs or semi-amateurs enthusiastic about Shakespeare but also hopeful of discovering the magic ingredient which will enable them to go viral. Here’s a list of some of them:

  • Blithe & BonnieMuch Ado About Nothing reset among modern-day American legal firms
  • Jules and MontyRomeo and Juliet set in rival student fraternities
  • Kate the Cursed – Canadian series adapting Taming of the Shew, with teenager Kate as “your average high school pessimist”
  • A Labour of Love – Forswearing love in a modern setting in this adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • Like, As It Is – As You Like set among American modern-day vlogging teenagers
  • Lovely Little Losers – First-year New Zealand students in adpatation of Love’s Labour’s Lost. A sequel to Nothing Much to Do
  • Mac and BethMacbeth turned into a story of ambition, betrayal and superstitition, featuring two girlfiends, Mac and Beth
  • Much AdoMuch Ado About Nothing with a rock music background
  • Nothing Much To DoMuch Ado About Nothing set among New Zealand high school students
  • OthelloOthello on the streets of New York (unusually among these web series for using Shakespeare’s language)
  • R & J – Rival butcher families in Brooklyn updating Romeo and Juliet (as with Othello, using Shakespeare’s language, and from the same company, Ready Set Go)
  • The Town’s the Thing – Clever adaptation in which three couples in the American town of Shakes play out the interlocking stories of Beatrice and Benedick, Hamlet and Ophelia, and Romeo and Juliet
  • Twelfth Grade (or whatever)Twelfth Night with American teenagers
  • Weird Sisters – a loose adaptation of Macbeth with three women roomates, living – as with The Town’s the Thing – in the town of Shakes
  • What We WillTwelfth Night as the story of a 17-year-old American’s summer

Though there are some variations in approach, and in the experience of cast and crew, there is much similarity between the Shakespearean web series that I have seen. Their stories are set in the modern day, with modern concerns and in modern language (the series by Ready Set Go Theatre productions are unusual in using Shakespeare’s words). Vlogging is a common theme: the subjects address us informally through the camera, whether happy, in distress, alone or with company. This reliance on vlogging enhances the sense of realism and engagement with its target audience, but does lead some limited set-ups (so much of necessity takes place in bedrooms) and repetition of ideas; moreover it leads to complicated contrivances as the filmmakers strive to come up with reasons for the characters to be addressing the camera, no matter what the crisis. Some series are shot more conventionally i.e. without acknowledgment of the camera, but in general the admission that the camera is always there, that we are watching them, is among the form’s most distinctive characteristics.

Twelfth Grade (or whatever) – check out episode one for how neatly it imitates the opening scene of Twelfth Night

The series are also notable for their use of social media. It is usual for the videos to be posted on YouTube via an account in the name of one of the characters (so Kate the Cursed, for example, has episodes posted by two of the characters, Liv and Sam – or Olivia and Viola). Characters are given extended lives through Twitter accounts, Tumblr pages and Facebook accounts. And followers of the series express their fondness for whichever character through YouTube comments.

But what most distinguishes the series is their focus on youth. Their subjects are young, and usually the filmmakers are too. Just as importantly, the audience is. They have the frankness, idealism, guilelessness and wisdom of a generation that shares its lives online. There is a powerful sense of of discovery, of having stumbled across this brave new world of ideas and characters whose situations can be magically transmuted into today. They make Shakespeare young again.

The aim of the series is to clarify Shakespeare; to make what the plays say clear to an audience usually thought to have no interest in Shakespeare, by matching them to the world that they do appreciate. They help to make Shakespeare make sense. It is interesting to see, therefore, that those series that follow Shakespeare most closely are usually the more successful. Weird Sisters, for example, borrows little little from Macbeth except the idea of three women with mysterious powers, and rather loses its way. By contrast, the terrific Twelfth Grade (or whatever), with its ingenious transposition of Shakespeare’s characters and their special situations, soars because of the solid backbone and judicious mix of characters that Shakespeare provides.

Jules Pigott explains how she makes videos for those who “like Shakespeare and awkward teenagers”

One can only marvel at the huge amount of hard work that goes into producing these multi-episode series. The above video, posted by Jules Pigott, creator of Like, As it Is and Twelfth Grade (or whatever), shows what is involved – writing the scripts, co-ordinating the cast, setting up shoots in her family home, rehearsals, editing, controlling all the information, uploading the videos, and managing a social media campaign to keep up the audience interest. And all this for no more rewards than what is often just a handful for YouTube followers and some Likes on Facebook. But the enthusiasm, the sense of doing the right thing, is palpable.

This is a new form of Shakespearean production, and it needs to be championed. It is fresh, illuminating and relevant. It fits the temper of the times through its use of online media and through its special connection with a young audience. It makes a TV production such as The Hollow Crown look safely conventional, and the social media ambitions of the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming feel ham-fisted.

Nothing Much To Do, the Candle Wasters’ delightful adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Not all of the Shakespearean web series are that successful artistically, which is to be expected, but the best of them are equal to any other form of excellence in Shakespearean production. They successfully sustain their own worlds. This is partly thanks to Shakespeare, but all the more thanks to their own imaginations. They are often rough at the edges, but so they should be. The glossier efforts try too hard to please; those that are truer to their roots in the culture of self-produced video that YouTube has engendered feel more real, and that much truer to Shakespeare.

Among the most impressive work has been created by a trio of young New Zealand women who go under the name of the Candle Wasters. They started out with Nothing Much To Do, a charming and spirited translation of Much Ado About Nothing to a New Zealand high school. This was followed by Lovely Little Losers, which ingeniously took some of the same characters (and performers) on to their first year at university in a scenario based on Love’s Labour’s Lost. Their series are sharply scripted and winningly performed, something reflected in good audience figures (though no Shakespeare web series has come close to match the large number of followers enjoyed by web series adapted from romantic novels). Their third series, Bright Summer Night, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and set at a Wellington house party, begins today (July 8th). To judge from the trailers it is going to push the genre on to the next level.

Do follow.

Episode 1 of Bright Summer Night introduces us to Puck

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