sat 20/04/2019

Arena: All the World's a Screen – Shakespeare on Film, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Arena: All the World's a Screen – Shakespeare on Film, BBC Four

Arena: All the World's a Screen – Shakespeare on Film, BBC Four

How the Bard has become part of our collective movie memory

Orson Welles, looming large with 'Othello', 'Macbeth' and 'Chimes at Midnight'

In the last century, when the BBC took arts documentaries seriously, Arena was one of the highlights of the week. Nowadays its appearance is as rare as that of a Midwich cuckoo. Money, or rather the lack of it, is the problem. In our grave new world a single promo for EastEnders can cost more than a 60-minute film.

Three cheers then for Arena: All the World’s a Screen – Shakespeare on Film, a cavalcade of clips that show the Bard really is all things to all men. None of the talking heads belongs to a woman. None of the interviews is original, but David Thompson and Adrian Wootton have managed to take recycling to a new level and made 24-carat gold out of old footage.

Hamlet has been adapted for the screen more than any other Shakespeare play. Besides Laurence Olivier’s version, which won four Academy Awards, it has been turned into an epic of Soviet realism by Grigori Kozintsev, an Italian western (Johnny Hamlet), and an exercise in neo-Noir by funny Finn Aki Kaurismäki (Hamlet Goes Business). Then there’s Romeo and Juliet which, in addition to West Side Story and Franco Zeffirelli’s ground-breaking 1968 production, has inspired Baz Luhrmann’s “cinematic tour de force” Romeo + Juliet and a Bollywood bonanza: “You’ve taken my breath away. I want it back” (Olivier, pictured right).

While all these films, to a greater or lesser extent, could be said to demonstrate poetry in motion (pictures), Zeffirelli disputes that it is the verse that has made Shakespeare the only global playwright. He attributes his appeal to the stories themselves, the emotional crises that transcend language. It is fascinating to see him rehearsing his teenage leads – surely the only time that an on-screen Romeo (Leonard Whiting) has looked good in tights.

As always Orson Welles looms large. Once again the chosen sequences fit the reminiscences perfectly: shooting Othello in a Moroccan bath-house; working round a micro-budget on Macbeth; playing Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, his masterly cinematic conflation of the five plays that feature the huge hill of flesh.

However, the talking heads cannot compete with the clips from the movies themselves. The Technicolor pageantry of Olivier’s Henry V and the jaw-dropping visuals of Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s version of King Lear, contrast starkly with the recurring black and white images of blood, mud and death.

It is wonderful to be reminded of Heath Ledger’s comic skill in 10 Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew); Leonardo diCaprio’s elfin beauty in Romeo + Juliet; Derek Jarman’s high camp, punkish (and freakishly faithful) re-imagining of The Tempest; and Helen Mirren’s brilliant performance as Prospera (pictured above) in Julie Taymor’s version of Shakespeare’s last great play. A comprehensive survey of the field, then. Ian McKellen (the king in Richard Loncraine’s 1930s Richard III) is conspicuous in his absence – "Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes…" However, he can be heard delivering Prospero’s farewell speech.

Just as Shakespeare’s words have become a part of the English language, this excellent documentary suggests the films based on his works have become part of the collective movie memory. If this sounds highfalutin, the final clip is from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Perhaps someone has already translated Hamlet into Klingon.

Zeffirelli attributes Shakespeare's appeal to the stories themselves, the emotional crises that transcend language

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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