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A few years ago the BBC produced a short season of four of Shakespeare's plays retold for the modern age which were later released as a two CD set. Each play was written by a different author and all featured well known British actors from stage and screen. I'm guessing enjoyment of these plays will depend very much on whether you're a Shakespeare purist or not as they do stray somewhat from Will's original concept although to my mind they do still retain the essence of the plays.
~~Much Ado About Nothing~~
The series begins with my favourite of all Shakespeare's plays. The original Much Ado About Nothing manages to combine humour, romance and tragedy into a wonderful tale, although for modern day ears the language can be difficult to follow. This is definitely not the case with this reworked interpretation which retains and indeed amplifies in many ways, the essential elements of the play whilst making it thoroughly up to date. Written by David Nicholls, he of One Day and Starter for Ten fame, this is a cleverly reinterpreted adaptation of the original full of the same wit and sparkle.
The action begins with a flashback to three years previously and Beatrice is preparing for a special date whilst we also see Benedick packing for a trip abroad. Events reach their unhappy conclusion when Beatrice, now sitting in eager anticipation in a posh restaurant, is dumped by text and a consolation bottle of champagne is delivered to the table. We're then brought back into the present day and Beatrice is preparing to go on air as co-presenter on Wessex Tonight, which gives the BBC the opportunity to poke some gentle fun at their own regional programming. Working alongside Beatrice on the sofa is Keith, an ageing has-been who can't keep his hands to himself; Hero the weather girl and Claude the sports reporter whose burgeoning romance will be at the centre of the play. Up in the production gallery is Don, the director who is losing his touch and though he doesn't know it yet, is about to also lose his job because Leonard, the boss of South West TV is having a staff reshuffle which will see Don moved sideways and a new director given his job. Meanwhile, Keith has heart attack in the studio and Leonard brings in a replacement who, much to Beatrice's fury, is none other than Benedick. So the scene is set for a thoroughly enjoyable look at love and hate and how close the one is to the other.
Benedick and Beatrice continually bounce insults off each other but underneath all of his bluster and her waspish barbs, it's obvious to all who know them that these two were made for each other and their friends determine to see them reunited and begin their campaign at a fancy dress party being held at Leonard's home, by dropping hints in places where they know they'll be overheard that each loves the other. Hero and Claude's romance is also progressing more quickly than that of Benedick and Beatrice, and they soon set a wedding date. However, all is not well here because foolishly Hero had previously slept with Don because she felt sorry for him but this has resulted in Don becoming fixated on Hero and he sets about attempting to ruin the relationship.
The casting of this play is superb and Damien Lewis as Benedick is excellent having just the right touch of arrogance and immaturity which doesn't detract from his eligibility and the chemistry between himself and Sarah Parrish as Beatrice is palpable. Sarah Parrish is no stranger to this sort of role and is a mistress of delivering the sharp retort and brittle repartee, especially when it's aimed at Benedick. 'You really do put the W into anchorman, don't you?' The ingénue roles of Hero and Claude are also well interpreted by Billie Piper and Tom Ellis but the standout performance is from Derek Riddle who imbues the character of Don with a horribly sinister creepiness. This is a man in the middle of a mental meltdown determined to ruin everybody else's life as well as his own.
Anyone who has seen the original play will know that much of the in-your-face comedy comes from the character of Dogberry the constable who here has been transformed into Mr Berry, the commissionaire at South West TV, a pompous jobsworth who insists on seeing the ID of members of staff he's know for many years. It's only a small part but is very well realised by Anthony O'Donnell.
This is a wonderful reworking of one of Shakespeare's best plays. David Nicholls has more than proved his writing credentials here and setting the scene in a local TV station is an inspired choice offering plenty of opportunity for gentle digs at regional TV. The casting is faultless and the whole event is a slick and brilliantly executed reinterpretation.
There aren't many laughs in either the original or this contemporary play but despite being transferred from medieval Scotland to a present day restaurant, Peter Moffatt's interpretation still manages to pack a punch with its retelling of this story of ambition, murder and guilt.
Joe Macbeth (James MacAvoy) is the head chef at Duncan Docherty's Michelin starred restaurant where Joe's wife, Ella, is maitre d'. Following a night out with his friend and colleague, Billy, they encounter three binmen who make some strange prophecies including that the restaurant will not only gain another Michelin star but will ultimately belong to Joe. Billy is told that he won't gain anything from the restaurant but his sons will. The prophecies begin to come true almost immediately because when Joe and Billy return to the restaurant, Duncan tells them it's gained a third Michelin star but when he learns that Duncan plans to pass the restaurant on to his son, Malcom, egged on by his wife, Joe hatches a plot to murder Duncan and take possession of the restaurant.
It's often said that behind every successful man there stands a woman and in Macbeth it's his wife. Essentially, Macbeth is a weak man open to the manipulation of his overly ambitious wife who hates to see him being slighted, as she sees it. She is really the driving force behind the plan to murder Duncan and it's doubtful if Macbeth would ever have taken things quite so far if he'd been acting alone.
James MacAvoy was at the beginning of his career when he appeared in this play and was yet to secure roles in such blockbusters as The Last King of Scotland. He plays Joe Macbeth as a talented and egotistical chef who is well liked by his colleagues; a man with an overriding passion for food but whose relationship with his wife ultimately seals his downfall. Keeley Hawes turns in a superb performance as the rather scary Ella who quickly begins to manipulate Joe towards the act of murder. Speaking of his relationship with Duncan, she points out 'He milks you of everything you've got and pays you in charm and blarney'
The bluff and likeable Duncan (Vincent Regan) signs his death warrant when he announces he's handing the restaurant to his son Malcolm (Toby Kebbell) but his friend and the restaurant head waiter, Peter MacDuff (Richard Armitage) become suspicious of Joe and Ella and his investigations, of course, lead to even more bloodshed.
This is another clever reworking and I was surprised at how well this tragedy translates into a modern day setting. Of the four plays in the series, this is the only one without any lightness to the story and the filming matches this darkness with great use of low lighting and plenty of shadow. The way the writer interprets the prophecy of Macbeth's downfall happening when 'Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane' as being 'when pigs fly' is very cleverly brought about.
~~The Taming of the Shrew~~
This is another favourite of mine and I already own the previous BBC production of the original play, starring John Cleese. This version has Rufus Sewell as the wonderfully eccentric Petruchio who brings not only humour but a good deal of sex appeal to the role and it's easy to understand how he managed to bring Katherine to heel.
Katherine Minola is a successful politician who's tipped for the top job in Westminster but she has a temper which means that she's still single. Her party chairman, work colleagues and her family, don't escape Katherine's wrath. Katherine's sister, Bianca, is a successful actress managed by Harry who would dearly love to marry her and though Bianca is reluctant, she tells him she'll marry after Katherine does. When Harry's friend Petruchio, turns up at his flat, Harry takes him to Bianca's party and bets him £50 he won't marry Bianca's termagant of a sister.
Petruchio's first meeting with Katherine (Shirley Henderson) takes place in a lift and it doesn't go well as far as Kate is concerned. I just bet Shakespeare wished he'd thought to pen Katherine's response to Petruchio's 'Kiss me, Kate' as 'Up yours, weirdo!' Shirley Henderson makes an excellently shrewish politician and though I found her rather childlike vocal range odd to begin with making some of her rages sound more like toddler tantrums, she did grow on me.
The full horror of Petruchio's eccentricity becomes obvious from the moment he turns up to marry Kate, riding pillion on a motorcycle and dressed in the best traditions of an early Eddie Izzard in short kilt and high heeled boots, complete with heavy make up.. From then on mayhem ensues and poor Kate is dragged into the marriage from hell which she can either fight against or just give in and go with the flow.
There is a much larger cast to this play including a small role for David Mitchell as Tim, Kate's parliamentary aide. Twiggy doesn't disgrace herself in the acting stakes either and turns in a good performance as Kate's rather trendy mother who doesn't quite get her eldest daughter (and who certainly isn't wearing Per Una in this production). Stephen Tompkinson takes on the role of the hapless Harry, agent to Bianca and friend of Petruchio and brings a certain amount of pathos to his role. Bianca never had any intention of marrying poor Harry and he's eager to take up the offer to fly out to Petruchio and Katherine's honeymoon villa rather than stay in London and watch Bianca make love to her latest toyboy.
This is a wonderful interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, written by Sally Wainwright, and one which keeps remarkably close to the original concept despite the difficulties of translating a story about such an unpleasantly vituperative woman into someone so deeply in love they undergo a personality change. The luscious Rufus Sewell is superb as Petruchio and is totally believable as the slightly batty aristocrat fallen on hard times.
~~Midsummer Night's Dream~~
The final play to get a twenty-first century makeover is perhaps the most difficult of all to update because of the paranormal elements and the rather convoluted plot, but Peter Bowker manages to pull it off with great aplomb.
Theo and Polly have brought their daughter Hermia, to Dream Parks to celebrate her engagement to James Demetrius. Accompanying them is Hermia's cousin Helena who secretly loves James. As the family party gets underway, Xander turns up to declare his love for Hermia and things rapidly begin to go awry, especially when a pair of warring fairies and a magic potion are blended into the mix.
Unlike the other three plays, this one has a narrator of sorts, Puck (Dean Lennox Kelly) who explains how the fairies in the forest which surrounds the holiday park (a place very similar to CentreParks) are responsible for ensuring marriages are happy. Unfortunately, Oberon and Titania (Lennie James and Sharon Small) are having marital difficulties of their own. Theo (Bill Patterson) and Polly (Imelda Staunton), as you'd expect, turn in great performances as the parents of Hermia, as a couple whose own marriage has hit a bit of a rocky patch. When Puck begins meddling in the love lives of the two young couples, however, things soon get out of hand. In the meantime, members of staff at the holiday park are planning to put on some special entertainment for the engagement celebrations and are rehearsing in the woods when Puck begins to play tricks with Bottom the security guard (Johnny Vegas) who is desperately trying to impress his colleagues with his Michael Caine impression but once Puck tweaks his appearance, he's left alone in the woods and when Titania wakes, just as in the original, she falls for him. When questioned by Oberon, Puck confesses that Titania 'has got some kind of weird animal vibe going'
This was a wonderfully entertaining play with a cast, too numerous to mention them all, and there are some real laugh out loud moments mainly courtesy of Johnny Vegas who is actually a rather good actor. In fact the whole production is first rate and Dean Lennox Kelly in the guise of a scruffy looking Scouser makes a superb Puck, pulling together all of the disparate threads of this play into one.
There are a few special features on disc one including interviews with the writers and directors of the first two plays, all of whom pay homage to the original with some historical background added in. There are also filmographies for some of the major cast members, and lists of previous Shakespeare interpretations on film plus a picture gallery. There aren't any special features on disc two.
This isn't the first time that Shakespeare plays have been reinterpreted into modern settings but I believe it's the first time that the actual text has been rewritten. Whether Shakespeare actually wrote the plays or not, he was a master of interpreting the human condition and psyche into everyday situations and that is exactly what these four playwrights have done, too. Taking the original material and reworking into something which strikes a chord with a modern audience whilst retaining the major elements of the plays. Everything about these plays is first class, with superb acting performances all round, well chosen incidental music and high production quality. Running time for both discs is a tad under 350 minutes.
There are those who often criticise the BBC, especially about the high cost of the licence fee but here it's definitely been well spent. This is the sort of thing the BBC do supremely well. Had this idea been pitched to ITV or Sky, I doubt it would ever have been made as those companies always have to consider attracting huge audiences in order to raise advertising revenue.
This 2 disc set is currently available online for approximately £4.
You don't have to know or even like the original Shakespeare plays to enjoy these interpretations, and though there has been a certain amount of artistic licence taken by the playwrights in the main they've stayed true to the spirit of the originals and I suspect that Shakespeare would not have been too displeased with their efforts.