A king dies, another is crowned, a friend is executed, a battle won against monumental odds and the enemy’s daughter married off. Game of Thrones? No, Shakespeare’s Henry V. Just as compelling, it’s also better written, and, if you get sucked into Shakespeare, you can binge-watch for hundreds of hours.
One of the best is freely available on YouTube: Orson Welles’ skin-crawling 1948 production of Macbeth, in which Dunsinane is all clotted rocks, crags and chasms, rather than a castle. Welles fearlessly reshaped the text, while thickening the play’s dark spirit, so the witches are wraiths that would trouble the dreams of a saint. He plays Macbeth himself, amid gloomy, portentous lighting, barely showing half of anyone’s face. Jeanette Nolan is a sensational Lady Macbeth: implying much that’s left unsaid, and sensuously whispering sweet treasons her husband’s ear. With the dialogue recorded in advance, the shoot took only 23 days, and the pace is as frantic as any thriller – almost too fast to catch the verse.
By contrast Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender, has too much murmuring. Yet Fassbender can sometimes rattle your bones even more than Welles, as when he rasps, “O, full of scorpions is my mind.” Marion Cotillard is a supreme Lady M, her screen-time cunningly inflated by Kurzel.
When Laurence Olivier starred in his 1948 Hamlet, being 15 years too old for the role was barely noteworthy: Eileen Herlie, as his mother, was 13 years his junior! Talk about adding a certain frisson. Nonetheless the production is brilliant at its best, partly thanks to the exquisite cinematography. Sometimes, however, Olivier can sound more like a trumpet in William Walton’s high-stakes score than a ruminating prince: a Hamlet who can fly into such passions would surely be more precipitate.
Olivier’s first attempt at directing, producing and starring was his 1945 Henry V. While he delivers the patriotic oratory with panache, the design is the star, with a Shakespeare-era Globe production morphing into living faux-medieval paintings, and then to location filming for the battle of Agincourt. Much stronger was his 1954 Richard III, in which, from the opening “Now is the winter…” speech, he impales you on the sharpest-clipped consonants in cinema. His virtuoso blend of playfulness and menace keep you riveted, despite some clumsy staging – and Bosworth looking decidedly arid and Spanish. A last hurrah for Olivier’s vast talents was his heartbreaking 1983 King Lear, made for television with Diana Rigg, Leo McKern and John Hurt.
Another TV production is among the finest screen Shakespeares of all: The Hollow Crown (1996) combined Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I and II) and Henry V. Rupert Goold’s Richard II – the most-underrated play in the canon – sets the bar high, with Ben Wishaw perfectly cast as the theatrical, egocentric king, catching all the dancing, image-laden lyricism of the verse. David Suchet, as far from Poirot as possible, is excellent as the incorruptible York, and Rory Kinnear grows on you as Bolingbroke, even if James Purefoy (in the minor role of Mowbray) may have been even better.
Just as Wishaw commands Richard’s poetry, so Simon Russell Beale rules Falstaff’s prose in Richard Eyre’s Henry IV. Beale, convincing as a buffoon, wit and scoundrel (if less so an intellect), is deeply affecting when rejected by Prince Hal. Julie Walters is magnificent as the raw-skinned Mistress Quickly, and Jeremy Irons a suitably pompous Henry. Tom Hiddleston (Hal, Henry V) makes credible the transition from playful vagabond to stern warrior-king. Thea Sharrock directed him in the latter role, and the contrast to Olivier’s pageantry is stark, with Hiddleston delivering the St Crispian’s Day speech not so much as incendiary oratory, but as inner thoughts: a pep-talk to himself.
Michael Radford’s handsome 2004 The Merchant of Venice has Al Pacino as a complex, sympathetic Shylock, Lynn Collins a shrewd Portia and the ubiquitous Irons as Antonio. Stepping down a few rungs Laurence Fishburne plays the lead in Oliver Parker’s 1995 Othello, his verse delivery and acting sometimes seeming slightly out of synch. Kenneth Branagh’s Iago makes a chill pass over his blue eyes when speaking to camera, Irene Jacob (Desdemona) successfully steals our hearts as the collateral damage to Iago’s evil, and Anna Patrick brings a restraint and stillness to Emilia, that are usually foreign to the role. For all the production’s attributes, however, the finale is insufficiently devastating.
Yet much greater sins have been committed adapting Shakespeare to the screen, with directors pinched between reverence for the text and their own medium’s exigencies. John Gielgud (Cassius) and James Mason (Brutus) flatter Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953), in which Marlon Brando wrestles with Antony, Louis Calhern deserves assassination as Caesar, and Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr are swimming out of their depth in the Tiber.
Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing has its moments (mainly from Emma Thompson), but his Twelfth Night has none (find the Globe’s, instead, with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry), and nor does Julie Taymor’s MTV-like The Tempest (despite Helen Mirren’s presence). Baz Lurman’s Romeo and Juliet should be avoided, while Franco Zeffirelli’s is a feast for the eyes. The BBC’s 1980s filming of the complete works mostly resulted in productions that look like they were conceived, cast, designed and filmed in rather fewer than the 23 days it took Welles to shoot a masterpiece.