This week was the first Shakespeare Week in the UK, a nationwide deal where they try to bring the big guy’s works to life for elementary kids, a terrific idea and a tricky thing to do. Hell, it’s hard to bring Shakespeare to life for grownups; that’s when you get the faux-important approach, simply reading lines out in posh accents and hoping it looks intelligent. Here’s what it looks like when a brilliant pair of actors really speak the words as though they’re just talking to each other. (Kenneth Branagh has just been set up by his friends, who have told him Emma Thompson is in love with him)
Stunt casting can help keep viewers’ attention — who doesn’t want to watch more of Catherine Tate being snarky and David Tennant doing, you know, anything? But so little of the comedy here has anything to do with Shakespeare’s words. Tennant wears a Superman T-shirt and bumbles around the stage — quite charmingly, but it’s just that: charming slapstick. Same scene:
It’s very funny, but they’re cheating. They barely try to make the big wodges of Elizabethan understandable, just play the funny lines we can all get, then shovel the hard bits out the sides of their mouths to get to the next gag. As a way to get young people to watch, it’s not bad. But you never really get to meet Beatrice and Benedick. How are you supposed to care later when they’re forced to admit they’re in love?
The epitome of the stunt-cast and faux-important approaches is “Shakespeare in Love,” which contains 0% true Shakespeare, just some pretty people, posh accents (some quite fake indeed) and a few gags on the level of “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter,” for God’s sake.
Puke. Shakespeare isn’t sexy Joseph Fiennes leaping in and out of boats. He’s a 32-year-old father of three when he writes “R&J” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a middle-aged businessman imagining himself back into the hot tights of a teenager and imagining himself into the mind of a short brunette who is furious with a tall blonde for taking her boyfriend. They’ve been friends since they were in school together, these women, and they don’t understand at all what has just happened to them.
The next clip, of those two women in an epic catfight, is the actual moment I fell in love with Shakespeare.
I was ten years old and saw it on PBS. Yes, it’s the 1980s so the hair is floppy, and yes they play some of it broadly. But watch what they’re not doing: skipping the hard words. They’re making them work. Watch Helena get through that speech about her and Hermia as schoolgirls, a block of almost incomprehensible English. It’s like trying to convey emotions in Martian.
But it sets up how betrayed both women feel, and sets up that perfect payoff, a comedy catfight with real human love and pain underneath it.
So playing Shakespeare today requires actors to communicate really hard, and the modern viewer’s experience is different from the groundling’s, but there’s a different payoff too.
If you follow all the parts, the hard bits and the Elizabethan impenetrability and so on, then when you see that moment, a phrase or a joke or a feeling that skips over the centuries in between, it springs out with total clarity no archaeologist can dig up: Four hundred years ago, a person felt exactly the same way you did when their heart broke.