“There was a star danced, and under that was I born.” A star may not have danced over Stratford-upon-Avon when William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago this week, but the greatest writer in the English language continues to sparkle on the page, on the stage, and of course, on the screen.
Shakespeare’s work has appeared on the silver screen in countless forms—performed in different languages, set in various kingdoms and climes, reimagined for audiences of all ages. From the beloved musical “West Side Story” to Disney’s “The Lion King” to “Caesar Must Die,” in which inmates at a high-security prison in Rome perform “Julius Caesar”, his stories still resonate and inspire centuries after his birth. To celebrate the Bard’s special day, we chose three of our favorite performances of his work, with the requirement that they retained the original dialogue. Happy birthday, Will!
“King Lear” (1971)
Cast: Jüri Järvet, Elza Radzina, Galina Volchek, Valentina Shendrikova, Oleg Dal
Available on disc from Netflix – or on YouTube sans subtitles (but hey, just have a copy of the play handy)
It’s somewhat perverse, in an attempted tribute to Shakespeare’s language, to leap to a foreign adaptation – but a finer testament to the power and reach of the playwright’s verse than Grigori Kozintsev’s “Korol Lir” is not to be found. The film represents a murderer’s row of legendary 20th-century Russian creative talent – the translation used was by “Doctor Zhivago” novelist/poet Boris Pasternak (though subtitled versions generally just use the original Shakespeare to go back to English), the alternatively sweeping and haunting score was composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, and Kozintsev was one of the most internationally acclaimed Soviet directors of his generation (his 1964 version of “Hamlet” had already proven this area to be a strong suit, as well). But they’re all very nearly shunted aside by Järvet, an Estonian actor barely known before his careening, powerhouse performance. Energetic, penitent, sorrowful, mad – Järvet’s Lear stands against Kozintsev’s ravishing bleak landscapes, seemingly hewn from the earth itself.
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacobs, Kenneth Branagh, Nathaniel Parker
Available on Amazon Instant and iTunes, and on disc from Netflix
Though the trio of high-profile adaptations he directed himself in the early/mid-90s get the lion’s share of the acclaim and attention, Kenneth Branagh – the Man Who Would Be Olivier – turned in quite possibly his best cinematic Shakespearean performance as the manipulative Iago in Oliver Parker’s underrated version of the Bard’s troubled and troublesome tale of jealousy and paranoia. With the outmoded attitudes that let Olivier and Orson Welles parade around in blackface long gone (thank god), Branagh slid right into the slippery role of antagonist, while a pre-“Matrix” Laurence Fishburne has the perfect commanding presence for the proud, intimidating Moor. Parker’s production is certainly more restrained than Branagh’s own behind-the-camera efforts, but still suitably gorgeous; but perhaps more importantly, the director rightly recognizes that the story’s pivotal obsession is not Othello’s for Desdemona, but Iago’s for Othello, as the two men spiral into destruction and despair.
Cast: David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies, Mariah Gale, Edward Bennett
Available on Amazon Instant and on disc from Netflix
We live in a golden age of Hamlet. From Jude Law to Michael Sheen to Ben Whishaw, a slew of high-profile actors have taken to the stage as Shakespeare’s troubled prince in recent years, with Benedict Cumberbatch waiting in the wings for 2015. But none have been quite so successful as David Tennant, whose stint as the Prince of Denmark for the Royal Shakespeare Company was immortalized on film by director Gregory Doran.
Whereas other actors labor to portray Hamlet’s frenzy, Tennant, who exudes a sad energy, seems to slide seamlessly in and out of madness. In his hands, Hamlet’s violent swings feel natural, as if chaotic energy and poetic musings were meant to go hand in hand. This in turn makes Hamlet seem less like a mythical monolith, a being whose every word is etched in eternity, and brings a renewed vitality to the character and the story, as if we were discovering it for the first time. Tennant’s Hamlet is eloquent and tortured, but he is also funny and friendly, a person as well as a prince.