Shakespeare on Film brings Bard movies to cinemas in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Wigtown
So many Macbeths, but also some surprises in a well-chosen season
People have been adapting Shakespeare for film since the earliest days of cinema, and most of the time, they shouldn't have. The earliest Shakespeare film dates from 1899, and was made as a record of Herbert Beerbohm Tree's performance as King John. Only a single clip remains, and it's hardly great cinema: Tree writhes around in a chair while two blokes in armour watch him with all the hesitant awkwardness of wedding guests witnessing a drunken meltdown by the father of the bride.
A lot of the best versions of Shakespeare on film aren't straight adaptations, but draw on the manic energy of his plots to tell stories of their own in their own way. The BFI Film Audience Network's Shakespeare on Film season, which is currently happening around the UK, presents some of the more successful adaptations with an ingenious selection of Shakespeare-related movies.
Macbeth is one of the few Shakespeare plays that tends to deliver onscreen, maybe because the title role demands a cinema-friendly quality of brooding intensity. Three different versions are screened on consecutive Sundays in August at Glasgow's St Andrews in the Square: Orson Welles's glowering 1948 version, made on Welles's usual wing, prayer and tiny budget; Roman Polanski's blood-soaked 1971 film, with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis; and Justin Kurzel's brutal 2015 version with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The Polanski Macbeth, together with the 1953 Taming of the Shrew-themed musical Kiss Me Kate, also screens at Driftwood Cinema in Wigtown County Buildings.
In October and November, Edinburgh's Filmhouse sees a whole slew of films with Shakespearean DNA. There are full-on adaptations: Olivier's noir-ish Hamlet is famous for lots of reasons, but check out the massive Oedipal UST between Olivier as Hamlet and Eileen Herlie, playing his mother even though she was eleven years younger than him. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood has one of the most deliriously OTT death scenes for Macbeth ever filmed; Kenneth Branagh's grubby but effective Henry V is much the best of all his Shakespeare movies, and Welles wasn't alone in thinking Chimes at Midnight one of his own finest films. But there are also classic movies where Shakespeare is central to the plot. George Cukor's A Double Life features Ronald Colman as an actor whose performance as the jealous Othello starts to spill over into his own life, while Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be, with Jack Benny and the great Carole Lombard, is a sparkling anti-Nazi comedy. There's even Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, actually a fitfully-inspired rehash of Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night; we're not sure what it's doing in this season, as the only Shakespearean thing about it is the title.
One welcome rarity is Jiří Weiss's Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, which sets the basic situation of the play in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. But if you have to miss one movie in the whole season, make it Peter Greenway's much-hyped but overblown Prospero's Books. Fred Wilcox's Forbidden Planet, also in the season, is a far more rewarding take on The Tempest. Finally, there's yet another version of Macbeth – see what we mean? – in Alexander Abela's Makibefo, which transfers the action to a Madagascan fishing village and which Variety's reviewer described as 'an entirely fresh response to Shakespeare'.
Finally, how often you get to see Kiss Me Kate in its original 3D? Not very often, that's how. To a box office, go; and quickly, too.
Shakespeare on Film is on from Wed 10 Aug–Wed 23 Nov.