A couple of years back both Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart came to New York with in a relatively short period of time to do Shakespeare.
McKellan did King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was for me a one of the best Shakespearean plays I've ever seen. It was a triumph and it was the first time I ever understood the play. It also had a fantastic performance by McKellan who broke your heart. I say this because I'd seen several other Lears over the years and none worked for me (Christopher Plummer's was so over the top to start I walked out 20 minutes in because he had nowhere to go)
Patrick Stewart did Macbeth. Set in an unnamed totalitarian country in some what modern day the play was a tight lecture on Fascist politics. It was also the only time I've ever seen an audience scream and literally leap out of their seats with the Act 1 closer of the appearance of Banquo's ghost. Who needs the latest horror film when the Bard will curl your toes.
Both films were turned into films for television. In the US both were run on PBS. Having seen both productions and both films I thought I'd take a brief run at telling you about the films.
This is one of the best screen adaptions of Shakespeare I've seen. The film not only beautifully transfers the stage production to the screen, it also works as a damn fine film on it's own.
I'll not go into too much about the film itself, the play is a classic and well known, and I've already mentioned how good Ian McKellan is. Instead I'd like to mention the under appreciated, possibly better than McKellan performance of Sylvester McCoy as the Fool. Talk about heart breaking, McCoy hits every note right, and even some notes that I never knew were there. To me the role of the Fool has always been the one role, no matter how good or bad an adaption was, that I could count on to be at least reasonably well performed. McCoy took my expectations and blew them away. I thought the role was relatively simple. How wrong I was. It's not a simple role. Well it is if you want to get it in the ball park, but if you want it to sail over the fences and be a grand slam you have to do more, you have to shade the role, you have to make it something else. Something that bridges then with now. McCoy does that. Its amazing. He's always doing something that makes his role real. He's acting like a person even when he's not the center of attention. It was clearer on stage where you could see him always there, but here in the film he's still there, in the fringes, filling in with little things that make this all so much more real. Its a performance that isn't a performance but a real person. And almost no one noticed it because he's so good that you don't realize what it is he's doing.
Yes you should see this Lear because it's a great film. But on the other hand you should be seeing it to see Sylvester McCoy because he's given one of the greatest performances no one has paid attention to.
Patrick Stewart's take on the Scottish Play is an intriguing one filmicly. Opening the play outward, what was set in a stark totalitarian world on stage goes even farther into the realm of Big Brother. Its a half brother to Ian McKellan's taken on Richard III which was set in a fascist England of the 1930's. I would argue that this film is set several decades past that one when the bleakness of that world has only gotten worse.
The film is only a shadow of the stage production, it pushes things farther than they could do on stage. There are more locations, fancy editing and visual style that is hard to shake. In all honesty I don't know if I like it, but the damn thing sucked me in and dragged me along for it's three hours. It also made me put the DVD onto my wish list at Amazon so I can pick up a cheap copy down the line.
For me any version of Shakespeare that makes me forget the language and forget that I'm watching a Shakespeare play gets many points in my book. Frankly while I was watching this film I had no idea what I was watching or how it was going to come out. Before you think this is a bad thing understand that I have chunks of the play memorized (the result of too many classes where the play was the focus) and I have a great love for several film versions of the play, Throne of Blood being chief among them. I know the play and I know what happens so being able to get lost in the story is a huge plus.
Is it perfect?
No, it's too showy and several things that worked on stage, Banquo's ghost for example, don't really work on the screen. Still it's one of the better recent Shakespeare adaptions and a must see.