Jonathan Bate: Skilful remixes of a bard for all seasons

December 9, 2005

Shakespeare Re-told

In the 1970s, the BBC filmed the complete plays of Shakespeare.

The project fulfilled the corporation's public service remit and was also a nice little earner. Even today, if you want to show students a lesser-known play - King John , say, or Pericles - the old BBC warhorse remains the only option.

Period costumes and a classical style were used to create a timeless quality. But there's the rub: every Shakespearean production is of its time. Now the most striking thing about the old films, recently released on DVD, is their array of 1970s hairstyles.

Shakespeare is great not because of his timeless wisdom but because of his supreme adaptability to later times. Theatre workers from Shakespeare's godson William Davenant to Peter Brook have rewritten and improvised upon the texts. Reworkings have triumphed in every medium, from a 19th-century Macbeth on horseback to The Merry Wives of Windsor as opera and recent cinematic adaptations such as Ten Things I Hate about You (The Taming of the Shrew).

Purists will tut that the BBC's new venture, Shakespeare Re-Told , has jettisoned the words that are Shakespeare's chief glory. But what is the difference between these films and Berlioz and Prokofiev's symphonic and ballet versions of Romeo and Juliet? Besides, the scriptwriters are only doing what Shakespeare did himself: nearly all his plays were retellings of other stories. Interestingly, the only dud here is the one he made up himself: A Midsummer Night's Dream . The fairies are ill at ease in a CenterParc holiday pastoral. The concept would have been better set in the world of eco-warrior tree-dwellers.

The other comedies worked beautifully. Banter between television presenters was perfect for Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing , while the roles of supermodel and ambitious Tory MP were inspired choices for the rival sisters in The Taming of the Shrew (played as farce, the only thing you can do with this unsavoury play).

In both, production values were sky-high and performances razor-sharp, with the casting offering just the right mix of classical weight and televisual familiarity. Occasional quotations from the original plays were skilfully worked in, and Much Ado made neat use of Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments" anticipating the impediment that halts Hero's wedding).

Macbeth , the one tragedy, was superlative. Deeply influenced by Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential , with oracular bin men standing in for the weird sisters, it brilliantly transposed the Scottish court to the fiercely hierarchical world of a Michelin three-star chef, with gleaming knives, obsessive handwashing and blood everywhere. First the kitchen, then the restaurant, then the TV show: a supremely witty transposition of Glamis, Cawdor, King.

There were some glorious allusions to the original language: Joe Macbeth unseamed a pig from the knave to the chops and Duncan was known as "the old man" ("Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"). Best of all, this was a creative reading that did full justice to the key that unlocks the motivation of the Macbeths: the death of their child.

The BBC should commission more of these films forthwith. Great entertainment and intelligent Shakespearean interpretation: now that is public service broadcasting.

Jonathan Bate is professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at Warwick University and author of The Genius of Shakespeare , published by Picador, £8.99.

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