Liberating the Bard, or taking liberties?
Traditional or not traditional? That is the question when directors mount productions of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Over the decades, theater, movie and even television versions of the Bard’s plays have defied convention, some turning them into musicals, samurai action thrillers, films noir and modern-day dramas. Go back as far as MGM’s all-star “The Hollywood Revue of 1929" and you’ll find Norma Shearer and John Gilbert performing the balcony love scene from “Romeo and Juliet” in the slang of the day, including pig Latin.
The new comedy “Hamlet 2,” opening today, isn’t quite “Hamlet” but rather a raucous farce about an Arizona high school teacher (Steve Coogan) who puts on a sequel to the great tragedy in hopes of saving his career.
With that in mind, let’s brush up on some of the more creative takes on Shakespeare:
“Kiss Me Kate,” 1953
George Sidney directed this high-flying, and 3-D, MGM musical version of the hit Cole Porter Broadway sensation about a formerly married theatrical couple (Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel) who reunite for a new musical version of Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.” Songs include “Too Darn Hot,” “I Hate Men” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
“West Side Story,” 1957
Composers Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein changed the face, and tone, of Broadway musicals with their score for the Tony-winning update of the Bard’s romantic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” They, with Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents, updated the action to the contemporary gang life of Manhattan and transformed the lovers into Puerto Rican and “American.” The 1961 movie version won 10 Oscars, including best film, best director (Robert Wise and Robbins), supporting actor (George Chakiris) and supporting actress (Rita Moreno).
“Moonlighting” episode “Atomic Shakespeare,” 1986
Glenn Gordon Caron’s 1980s detective series, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis as wisecracking gumshoes, stretched the boundaries of traditional entertainment. One of the best episodes of the ABC show was this insanely funny spoof of “The Taming of the Shrew,” complete with Willis performing the Rascals’ classic “Good Lovin’.” Caron was inspired to do the episode after seeing Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in the 1978 Central Park performance of “Shrew.”
“Ten Things I Hate About You,” 1999
High school is the setting for this entertaining teen romantic comedy version of “The Taming of the Shrew” starring Heath Ledger in his first American feature as outsider Patrick Verona, who is paid to take out Kat (Julia Stiles), the ill-tempered sister of the beautiful Bianca (Larisa Oleynik).
“Richard III,” 1995
Ian McKellen -- one of the most acclaimed Shakespearean actors of the last 50 years -- gives one of his best performances in this film adaptation of the Bard’s historical drama about the murderous hunchbacked monarch. As directed by Richard Loncraine and based on the stage production for the Royal National Theatre, this “Richard” is set apart from others because the action takes place in a fascist-leaning England of the 1930s.
“William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” 1996
Innovative Aussie director Baz Luhrmann took on the romantic tale in this flashy, hip-hop adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers. The action takes place in a glitzy and hip Verona Beach, where the rivals are Ted Montague and Fulgencio Capulet.
Michael Almereyda takes the Bard’s tale of revenge and murder and transfers it to the high-tech world of modern New York in this acclaimed drama starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, Sam Shepard as the Ghost and Bill Murray as Polonius.
And then there are two directors who made cottage industries of adapting Shakespeare for film:
During his career, the Japanese director created three of his greatest achievements based on Shakespeare’s works: 1957’s “Throne of Blood” is a samurai-retelling of “Macbeth”; 1960’s film noir “The Bad Sleep Well” borrows from the pages of “Hamlet”; and his last epic, 1985’s “Ran,” for which he received an Oscar nomination for best director, sets the tragedy “King Lear” in feudal Japan.
The Irishman came to fame in 1989 as star and director of a lavish adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Since then, he’s brought “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet” to the screen. In 2000, he transformed “Love’s Labour’s Lost” into a 1930s-style musical featuring Cole Porter songs. But unlike Branagh’s previous three Bard films, critics and audiences alike brushed off this Shakespeare. The director garnered better results with his 2007 adaptation of “As You Like It.” Branagh set the tale of drama, mistaken identity, love and comedy in 19th century Japan.