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THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 05: ‘I DID Come Here To Make Friends’; As You Like It and ‘Reality’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Set your expectations to ‘shocked’.  Prepare to be astounded.  Because I am about to utter (no doubt for the very first time on the internet) the most original, brave, singular thought ever articulated:

I hate reality television.

I know, right?  I’m so raw.  So real.  I just tell it like it is, y’all.  Truth bomb.  Finger snap.

Man, I should get my own show.

I guess I should clarify.  I don’t mean to slag off the whole genre …or, since I guess it’s too big to be called a genre, the ‘form’?  The ‘structure’?  The ‘plague’?  Lots of people love it – for innumerable reasons – and as a device it can take myriad shapes.  Honey Boo Boo can hardly be placed in the same discussion as Making a Murderer; and the soapy freak show of the Real Housewives franchise is worlds away from whatever the hell Naked and Afraid is attempting to be (although when are we going to see Real Housewives: Sesame Street? ‘Elmo so mad Elmo almost run her down in Elmo’s Ferrari…’).

What bothers me is the overt artifice with which these shows are fuelled.  The attempts to ape reality that are patently constructed.  The artificial people having artificial conversations – be they the Bratz dolls of The Hills or the Deliverance cosplayers of Duck Dynasty.  The concocting of zany, pre-arranged schemes.  The leaning in to stilted, predetermined confrontations.  The meet-ups in restaurants, or the drop-ins at someone’s start-up business to share wooden dialogue riddled with one-liners and rote exposition.  ‘Surprise’ telephone calls where both sides of the conversation are somehow filmed.  The spouting of rehearsed ‘spontaneous’ observations and manufactured realisations.  All those constant, ceaseless reminders that everything depicted is a fabricated mise en scene; that even before the highly selective editing process has begun, a narrative is already being orchestrated that renders any sense of authenticity moot.

Indeed, this whole pretence has reached such a saturation point that it’s now no longer a secret these shows have writers.  They might be called ‘showrunners’, and sure, they don’t type out dialogue to be repeated verbatim, but they do run story treatments, come up with loose plotlines, concoct scenarios, give shape and order to the action – and yes, offer one or two snappy lines of banter.

And this fakery doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  Many people (my wife, for one) happily watch a platter of reality programming comfortably aware that it has, at the very least, been massaged by its editing, or wholesale invented for the cameras.  Personally, I find it tedious because it turns the viewing experience into a meta-game.  Rather than watching the show, you’re watching through the thin, shiny veil that covers the behind the scenes production meetings that designed the show.  Any sense of ‘reality’ disassembles into a meat-puppet theatre, one so commonly understood that there are now scripted television shows like UnREAL based around this premise.

A year or two back, I was compelled (it felt like at gunpoint, but I do have a tendency toward the hyperbolic) to watch what was then a new reality program titled It’s All Relative.  The show was centred around the family life of Leah Remini, onetime star of King of Queens and Scientology escapee.*  And I have to confess, by the standard set in a post-Kardashian universe, it was comparatively inoffensive.  Indeed, almost quaint.

Let me be clear: I still hated it.  I still squirmed and sighed and begged for freedom – but that’s a personal taste issue.  I’m sure for many others it was charming.

But what struck me at the time as one of the show’s virtues was its subjects’ unfamiliarity with the language of reality television.  To their credit, the family being scrutinised – Remini’s immediate family and mother – were uncommonly awkward with the fabrication of the filming process.  They were so conscious of the oddity of a film crew in their house that they would actually talk directly to the producers and sound techs as though they were new neighbours who had stopped by for a chat, commenting down the camera lens not only about what was being filmed, but the decision to film it.  In a world where Kardashians keep multiplying through social media photosynthesis, it was comforting to still see people try to grapple with the invasion of a guy with a boom mike having his elbow in their fridge.

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IMAGE: It’s All Relative (TLC)

In one scene, when a mock funeral for Remini’s mother had soured into a peculiarly melancholy affair (despite the zany music cues punctuating the soundtrack) Remini actually turned to camera, wiping tears from her eyes to ask, ‘Is this what you want, TLC?  Is this what you want to see?’  She was joking.  Ish.  There was a laugh tangled in the crying, and the absurdity of the whole situation was never lost, but by referencing the artifice of the scenario, she punctured the constraints and manipulation under which the program operated.  Clearly her mother didn’t just decide spontaneously to force her family to hold a living memorial for her; they didn’t all set a date and put on catering and get dressed in funeral clothes and all write eulogies on a whim.  It was crafted.  A display initiated for – and with – the film crew capturing it.  Perhaps this humanising awkwardness went away with time, but I appreciated the meagre glimpse of authenticity it offered behind the facade.

The real issue I have with these programs arises however when their calculated artifice bleeds into reality.  When asking an audience to playact dishonesty into ‘truth’ means we suddenly have to pretend that the Taylor Swift / Kanye West ‘feud’ is anything other than a cynical, mutually beneficial publicity stunt to be exploited for maximum exposure.  Or, after several seasons of The Apprentice, people get duped into believing the pernicious, fatuous fraud that Donald Trump was ever a ‘successful, self-made businessman’, instead of a thin-skinned, paranoid, self-mythologising, narcissistic, pathological liar who once inherited an empire from his father and spent the next few decades flushing it away on an unbroken spiral of hysterically asinine failed business ventures and multiple bankruptcies (at least six).  That a man with such a reverse-Midas touch that he spectacularly tanked everything he came in contact with, from an airline, to a travel agency, to a scam university, to a mortgage company (at the time of the country’s subprime mortgage crisis, no less), steaks, magazines, bottled water, vodkas and vitamins – a man who lost billions of dollars running his own casinos – that he was a successful business entrepreneur.

That guy.

If we have to swallow a lie that big, reality television should be a lot more fucking entertaining than it is.

In any case, all of this is just a protracted preamble to me saying that I was surprised, upon returning to As You Like It, at how many of the tropes of reality television Shakespeare employed, four centuries before it was even a genre

…Or a form

…Or a whatever the hell.

Because As You Like It is stuffed full of reality show fodder.  It has backstabbing, and betrayal, and reconciliations.  Its central conceit – aristocrats thrown into the wild – is pure Survivor.  The whole thing ends on a ‘surprise’ wedding ceremony, where shocking secrets are revealed in public.  Most every character is playing some sort of role to deceive, hide, or outwit their fellow outcasts, and above and uniting all of this, there is a general embrace of performative hamming it up and communal playacting.

In one delightfully convoluted moment, Rosalind – a woman masquerading as a man – is trying to disentangle herself from a pair of would-be lovers, Phebe and Silvius.  Silvius loves Phebe, despite her treating him like garbage, and Phebe has fallen for the disguised Rosalind, who likewise treats her with contempt.  And to a reality show cynic like myself, Rosalind’s  summary of their circumstance, ‘He’s fallen in love with your foulness, and she’ll fall in love with my anger’ (III.5.68), could serve as the tag line for every season of The Bachelor and its ilk.

(You can look also to Much Ado About Nothing for more evidence of how much Shakespeare loves a good reality show plot.  There’s its twisted fake funeral, the family squabbling, the vicious slut-shaming rumours, the zany schemes, and the will-they-won’t-they bickering couple whose romance everyone seems perversely invested in…)

Ultimately, As You Like It is soaked in the kind of pretence that drives me insane about reality television.  But here, that willing embrace of falsehood becomes profoundly transformative, because ironically, it actually succeeds in rendering something true.

The plot (such as it is) may not sound like a playful comic romp.  There are multiple familial betrayals and murderous plots; homes are ripped apart; loyalties sundered; choking declarations of unbridled hatred are made; most every sympathetic character is ejected into the wilderness to die – but the result is a celebration of farce and wilful play.

Primarily, the narrative concerns a gaggle of aristocrats who are banished from their homes into a nearby wood.  Some embrace their imposed liberty, unfettered from the concerns of the civil world; others, by necessity, affect disguises to protect themselves from harm.  But rather than descending into despair and savagery, playing out an Elizabethan Lord of the Flies, the characters meet this new, dangerous wilderness in the forests of Arden by giving license to their imagination.  They literally start playing around.  Enacting silly wooing games and writing poetry and dressing up to pretend.  It can all seem, at first glance, a bit unhinged, but Shakespeare keeps the tortured, tragic thread that motivated this excursion throughout, just to remind the audience that we’ve not simply wandered off into some giddy fantastical dream.

There is the heroine, Rosalind, who, while wearing the disguise of a country boy, meets up with Orlando, a man for whom she had romantic feelings back in the city and who now appears to have similar feelings for her.  While remaining in disguise, she convinces Orlando to let her ‘cure’ him of his love for Rosalind, by pretending to be her, and acting like a crazy woman.  So Rosalind finds herself playing a man, playing a woman, playing crazy.

And not a television production crew in sight.

Given this theme of contrasting civilisation and wilderness, it is perhaps no surprise to say that As You Like It is concerned on every level with the question of nature versus nurture.  What is it that defines us as people?  Are we born bad – the fact one brother is a villain and the other a sweet tempered benefactor, merely a quirk of biology? – or do we rather learn our dispositions, becoming shaped by our experience?  Do we merely affect an appearance of goodness to mask our intrinsic immorality?

For a while, in order to tease these questions out, the play seems to have it most every way.  Two of the play’s brothers, Orlando and Oliver, appear to be diametric opposites, and yet both are the products of the same loving family, so Oliver’s cruelty, spite, and willingness to have his brother murdered, seems inborn; similarly, the two competing Dukes, the rightful Duke Senior and his usurping brother Frederick, who banished him with threat of death, were presumably raised together.  But before the play lets us settle on this idea of an innate evil, both villains, Frederick and Oliver, prove themselves to be redeemable.  Both, having left civilisation, are able to cultivate an inner peace that leads them to renounce their former behaviour and seek to genuinely better themselves in future.  And either way, whether this is some elemental better human nature, or the promise of a newly acquired philosophy, the play opens up to the eternal, hopeful potentiality for change.

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IMAGE: Rosalind by Robert Walker Macbeth (1888)

Despite this occasional, necessary cloud, it remains an exquisitely bright, celebratory play.  Those filled with spite and jealous rage are able to be healed by the unburdened welcome of the wilderness.  Brothers are able to forgive, to reconnect, to wish each other peace and goodwill.  Lovers can embrace foolery to find within it deeper truth.  Rosalind and Orlando get to shake out their playactings of love in disguise before they undertake the real thing, and the shepherd Silvius and his love Phebe (one hopes) get some perspective on their unhealthy emotional co-dependency, and actually agree to love someone who is capable of loving them back.

Shakespeare isn’t just detaching his characters from the recognisable world to make some lazy Garden of Eden reference (although that is overtly mixed into the imagery).  This is not about sneering at the fall of man and idolising the ‘freedom’ granted by naïveté.  After all, even though the two converted villains of the play vow to live more rustic, pure lives, most of the other characters gladly reclaim their lives in society.  Instead, I think Shakespeare wants is to remember just how stifling adulthood, social pressure, the acquisition of wealth and esteem can be.  It’s a daily fight for survival, as Orlando’s was at the beginning of the play, too swiftly propagated on competition and scheming, trying to outwit and outplay opponents you can see, and more tragically, those that you come to imagine.  Even those you should consider family or friend.

By ejecting these characters into the wild, those societal shackles are abandoned.  Life is no longer a competition, but an invitation to take solace in others, to support and encourage and give.  Shakespeare writes the ultimate reverse-Survivor fan fiction.  The gong is being rung for the eviction ceremony (is that how the show works?), but no one wants to partake.

And so, freed from the need to be grown-ups about everything, the characters embrace their youthful sides. Write mooney love poems; dress up and pretend; play-act getting married; chase each other around; fall asleep in the sunlight; sing songs.  There is giddiness and gambolling, and fun (even in spite of there being lions roaming the land eating people, apparently.)  All the crap, all the politicking and scheming and backstabbing, all those social institutions everyone believed were so integral back in the invisible prison of civilisation, are dissolved.  Instead, they carry that which is crucial and unquantifiable with them: love, fellowship, and kindness.

It’s a hokeyness that Shakespeare himself acknowledges he is indulging.  For much of the play’s run time it conducts a tongue-in-cheek interrogation of both its own structure (calling out its conventional failings) and its poetry (the hyperbole and disingenuousness verse relies upon for effect).**  Orlando – despite loving Rosalind intensely, writes objectively bad poetry, scattering his meagre verse throughout the forest to the derision of all.  Touchstone, wooing Audrey, says that all poetry is a fraud, ‘for the truest poetry is the most feigning’ (III.3.17-18).

Meanwhile, the plot seems to get forgotten in the salve of all this pretending.  The real peril that the characters are in meanders away; major shifts in the narrative occur unseen, off-stage.  When an as-yet unmentioned third brother of Oliver and Orlando rushes in at the end to exposition-dump that the danger of the usurping Duke Frederick has passed, it seems to be as unexpected an return to the narrative for the characters as it is for the audience.

And in Rosalind’s fourth-wall dismantling epilogue (which declares itself subversive for being delivered by a woman – or since women weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s time, technically a man pretending to be a woman  pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man…) – she cannot even be bothered to defend Shakespeare’s shapelessness narrative.  Rosalind teasingly denigrates the play’s writing, saying she cannot ‘insinuate you in the behalf of a good play’ (V.4.202-3); instead, she uses her charm, with which the play is overflowing, to invite the audience to take from the production what they will – as they like it.  They too are under no obligations.

Because this is not a play about story.  Just like in reality television, the premise is merely the thinnest frame upon which to hang the real drama; the game less significant than the games the players played on one another.  Fraud – and particularly poetic fraud – is here shown to lead to truth and growth, even in spite of itself.  Here, unlike in the carnivorous scheming of reality television, giving license to falsehood brings out the best in us.  Placed into artificial worlds we divorce ourselves from our engrained misbehaviours.  Counter-intuitively, by pretending to be what we aren’t, we can reconnect with what we should be.

Rosalind fakes being a boy to lead the man she loves through his delusions of adoration to the clarity of self-awareness.  Duke Senior, by playing at being a wild man, gets in touch with an unsullied vision of humanity where he can ‘feel not the penalty of Adam’ (II.1.5).  Even the melancholic Jaques gets to be tickled by the verbal play of a fool, stepping, if only momentarily, out of his self-imposed funk.

Fittingly, it is therefore when the play indulges its most artificial moment that it presents its most elegant portrait of humanity.  In the midst of what is in truth a bit of tedious stage business – literally Shakespeare needs to kill a few minutes so that Orlando can run off to retrieve his starving manservant Adam – the play stalls to have Jaques rhapsodise poetically about the lifespan of the average human being.  Jaques, an insatiable depressive (a weathered The Cure t-shirt away from being the prototypical emo), has spent his time moping around the forest, in his words, sucking melancholy from melody and railing against the world, and here, to fill time, Shakespeare grants him one of the most genuinely moving descriptions of the inevitability of death, decay and mortal frailty, the seven stages of man:

                                  All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages.  At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow; then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth; and then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.7.140-67)

Seven ages of man; our inevitable, unavoidable, solemn march toward the grave’s oblivion, sans eyes, sans ears, sans everything.  It will come, he says.  But that’s for another day, the play suggests.  And knowing what awaits need not deaden the beauty of youth and it virtue, but rather make it sweeter.  If we are to be creatures always ensnared by larger constructs like society and temporality, then at least we can be aware of them, and free ourselves from their burden.  Even if only in our minds.

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

On its surface, director Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous version of As You Like It (2006) appears to bear little relationship to this falsified ‘reality’ television show conceit that I’ve been blathering on about.  The production is set in a stylised pre-twentieth century Japan, with a group of English aristocrats.  But this notion of play-acting a superficial facade is nonetheless central to the themes being explored, becoming uncomfortably problematic as the film proceeds.

In many ways it is a lovely production: lavish visuals; a score that is evocative and sublime; acting that is solid to exceptional across the ensemble.  There’s a little less Rosalind (as played by Bryce Dallas Howard) than I would like as good portions of her dialogue appear to be excised, but national treasure Brian Blessed gets to portray both Dukes as twins, running the gamut of Senior’s benign saintliness to Frederick’s volcanic, paranoid psychosis, and Romola Garai, as Celia, is delightful, as always.  The brothers Orlando and Oliver (David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester respectively) are both fantastic – Lester in particular gives emotional depth and complexity to Oliver, a character that is often little more than a moustache twirler until his last minute conversion. And hearing Kevin Kline as Jacques deliver the seven ages of man speech never gets old.

And Shakespeare can work wonderfully in Japan.  Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is a reimagining of Macbeth, taking a Jacobean English play about an 11th century Scottish King and translating it seamlessly – marvellously – into feudal Japan, elevating all the perversions of honour and madness of the original text.  But here there doesn’t seem to be a deeper thematic reason for transplanting the action of the story to a British trading outpost in Japan outside of aesthetic quirkiness.

A title card informs the audience that these are colonial traders who have set up a ‘treaty port’ during the nebulous late 19th century period of British-Japanese political relations.  Taken just at face value, Branagh appears to have simply replicated the original play’s romantic rejection of society and its embrace of the rejuvenating lustre of the natural world in the forests of Japan rather than a mythic British wilderness (although ironically he still films it in England).  And that’s nice in theory – the stuffy Brits are going to learn about real life by being exposed to another culture – but that doesn’t really manifest in the play.  In its place, a lot of complex, thorny issues of cultural appropriation are evoked that threaten to become outright controversial.

To begin with, all the of the principle characters are played by western actors – including many of those in the supposedly Japanese peasantry that have multiple lines.  Even Charles the wrester (here a sumo wrestler, natch) has a western manager who speaks for him.  Secondly, although Branagh attempts to utilise the trappings of Japanese culture to allow his western characters to access a truth within themselves (an impulse coming from a complimentary, if misguided, place) in practice, aside from a pretty estate, some fine clothes, a zen garden, and a token, unspeaking monk, there is little indication that Japan has impacted these characters much at all.  His principle characters remain western imperialist intruders into a culture that they are in the process of coopting as their own.

If I sound like I’m really down on the film – I’m not.  It’s still lovely.  It’s just a shame, because it feels like there is something of more substance to say in the work that is never fully articulated.  That in this enchanting Shakespearean fantasy cultures can be respected and genuinely shared beyond the limitations of genealogy.  In practice though, at best the Japanese aesthetic is a pretty but ultimately pointless coat of paint, at worst it risks playing as more of a celebration of imperialist assimilation and the coopting of a culture.

But it is beautiful, and well acted, and by the time Orlando has been attacked by some stock footage of a tiger, I am already in the thrall of Rosalind’s layers of playful fraud.  Because here too, reality is joyfully bent to a happier end – you just have to be willing to ignore the bad, socially disheartening stuff for a moment, and indulge your imagination…

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

* * *

* It’s All Relative appears to have run for two seasons before ending in 2015.

** He even uses verse sparingly, with the majority of the interactions between the two lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, rendered in prose.

* * *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: As You Like It by William Shakespeare (ed. by H.J. Oliver, Penguin, 2005)

Production: As You Like It, directed and screenplay by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa, screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (Toho Studios, 1957)

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THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 03: ‘Despair and Die’; Richard III and Anarchy in the UK

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

I had no idea Shakespeare was a such a punk.

I mean, I’ve read Richard III before.  I remembered how unnervingly charming the central character was, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) his physical and psychological deformity.  I recalled how drenched in blood the narrative becomes, starting with the overthrowing of Henry VI (whose death occurs before the play even starts) and descending from there into a whirlpool of slaughter, with Richard happily carving up his family, colleagues, conspirators – and even country when it descends into a full blown civil war.  But reading it again, and then watching Ian McKellan’s feisty film production, Richard III (1995), it all became so obvious:

This is the ultimate punk rock story. 

Sure, Shakespeare missed the heyday of the punk period – his play was first performed four centuries before The Ramones were transformed into Hot Topic’s best selling t-shirt.*  And sure, the only time that ‘music’ is mentioned it’s when Richard is gloating about how sweet the sound of two young boys being murdered will be (although those could conceivably be Misfits lyrics).  But the whole play’s sensibility is so anarchic and anti-establishment that it’s hard not to picture Shakespeare in a Mohawk and sleeveless denim, shouting the plot in the face of the police officer he just tried to glass.

Shakespeare was young when he wrote Richard III.  The play is said to have been penned around 1592 when he was still in his late twenties, just starting to flex his muscles in the leap from an actor to writer.  And this youthful exuberance shows, in all the best ways.  This feels like the work of an audacious young writer, one willing to push boundaries, upend historical record, and risk offence.

The Richard Shakespeare presents  has become infamous for his delighted scheming.  He stands alongside Iago from Othello and Edmund from King Lear in pantheon of charismatic Shakespeare villains, but to me he outstrips them both because (at least for the first portion of the play) he’s so utterly, irredeemably badass.  Full of scene-chewing sarcasm and bile, he laughs at the snivelling halfwits that make up his family and colleagues, all of whom he knows he can dance like puppets.  He uses and discards people without compunction.  At the height of his power he is able to seduce the woman whose husband he killed, literally while his corpse lies beside them.

He’s a character so comfortable in his ruthlessness that he doesn’t even bother inventing a justification for his villainy.  The closest that we get comes in his opening soliloquy in which he says he is just bored:

Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away my time (1.1.24-5).

The war is over, and there’s nothing else to do, so why not burn everything down for the fun of it?  It’s no wonder that the play’s signature line, spouted by the ghosts of everyone Richard has murdered becomes ‘Despair, and die!’  ‘Trollin’ for the LOLS’ presumably read a little less poetic.

And Shakespeare clearly has a ball with Richard’s gleeful, unrepentant, pantomime evil.  Near every line the character speaks has a wicked double meaning that throbs with evil portent if you’re in on the gag.  ‘Well, your imprisonment shall not be long; / I will deliver you’ (1.1.114-5), he says to the brother whose murder he has already planned; ‘A greater gift than that I’ll give my cousin’ (3.1.115) he says to the boy he has already marked for death; ”Tis death to me to be at enmity; / I hate it, and desire all good men’s love’ (2.1.60-1), he says to a gathering of his royal family, almost the entirety of whom he is about to murder, frame, threaten or manipulate into ruin.

He blows up or hollows out every monarchic ceremony he confronts.  He fakes the call to rule – pretending to be unwilling to accept the crown that he has manipulated and schemed for until his fellow countrymen beg him for it.  He throws a conversational hand grenade into a scene of familial peacemaking – ‘Oh, are you guys all patching things up?  Cool, because I forgot to tell you that because of all of you our brother was killed, like, five minutes ago.  Nice job, bro.’  He perverts one scene of courtly romance by staging it over the corpse of his conquest’s dead ex-husband, and perverts the next trying to convince a mother to marry off her daughter to him, despite the fact that he happily killed most everyone else in their family.  He slaughters prisoners.  He snaps at and berates his military advisors.  And as he upends each of these sacred, kingly duties, you can almost hear the voice of Sid Vicious, shouting into a beer-soaked microphone:

Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.**

The full scene of Richard’s seduction of Anne alone is a fantastic expression of this punk ethos.  Anne, furious, berates Richard with charges of murder, but he twists her rage into a perverse attraction, corrupting everything sacred by robbing it of meaning.  If her husband Henry was such a great guy, he says, then it’s probably better off that he’s dead, because we live in a world of sin.  And Richard himself, he claims, is less suited for hell, as she claims, than he is for her bed, because she’s so hot.  He even claims that his attraction for her is the reason he murdered her husband, and ultimately turns ‘love’ itself into an infection by remodelling her insult (‘thous dost infect my eyes’ (1.2.148) into a come-on (‘Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine’ (1.2.147-9)).  Their warped, psychosexual exchange culminates in an offering of murder as romance: when she says she wants him dead, he actually offers her a sword:

[he lays his breast open: she offers at it with the sword]

Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry,

But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.

Nay, now dispatch; ’twas I that stabbed young Edward,

But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.

[she falls the sword] (1.2.179-82)

And when she flinches, dropping it to the ground in horror, he hands her the weapon again, upping the ante: ‘Take up the sword again, or take up me.’ (1.2.183)

Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) (he not only stars as the title role, but co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director Richard Loncraine) not only understands this punk sensibility, it doubles down on it.  From the opening titles – in which Richard guns a man down in cold blood, and the name of the movie is splashed in bold red across his face, one letter appearing with every blast – through to the film’s end, in which Richard, grinning, hurls himself backward off a building into a consuming ball of fire, the film continuously pushes its boundaries, testing offence.  In McKellen’s version Richard mocks the children that he’s about to murder.  Robert Downey Jr., while literally in the middle of having sex with a stewardess, gets (somehow) stabbed through the chest.  There are hangings.  People get their throats slashed in the bath.  Richard sits bopping along to a big band album while happily flicking through photos of the guy that he framed and had murdered.  In a fever dream, McKellen appears with his face twisted into a grotesque mutant boar.

And what else?  What else…?

Oh, yeah: Richard turns England into Nazi f**king Germany.

Which is pretty wild.

Richard III Nazi

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Even as a way of showing how perverse Richard and his corrupted rule have become, even as a natural extension of the original play’s punk spirit, of the evoking Godwin’s rule is a bold move.  Not that it doesn’t have precedent.  For Shakespeare, the sitting Queen of the time, Elizabeth, was granddaughter of Henry Tudor (Richmond in the play), so there was no way he was going to make Richard, the guy who her grandfather defeated, sympathetic.  Charmingly maniacal was fine, but someone to empathise with?  Hell, no.  So Shakespeare’s Richard became a ghoulish creature: a nasty, withered hunchback, who spent two years in the womb, and arrived sneering and chewing at the world will full grown teeth.  McKellen and Loncraine can be seen to be simply continuing this demonization of Richard in their film by taking it to the next extreme: Nazis.  And so, with a few cosmetic tweaks (the swastikas are swapped for boars heads), suddenly England is being policed by jackbooted thugs, war is declared, and Richard is one hunt for a religious artefact away from being punched in the face by Indiana Jones.

The element McKellen and Loncraine perhaps best capture is the seduction of the viewer.  One of Shakespeare’s most ingenious moves in the crafting of his play was to make Richard alluring to his audience.  When he first begins his anarchic campaign of upending of the status quo, Richard playfully invites the audience along for the ride: Watch me screw around with these idiots, he says.  See me set up my dumb brother.  Watch as I get away with all this crazy crap and take the throne for myself.  And then, with glee, he goes ahead and does it.  All of it.  He weaves an elaborate web of lies that only we in the audience know is a complete load of bunk and smiles at us, sharing the joke.

‘Was ever a woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever a woman in this humour won?’ (1.2.227-8) he asks us after winning over Anne, then immediately adds that he’s going to kill her too eventually: ‘I have her; but I will not keep her long’ (1.2.229).  He makes us his confidant, tempting us into laughing along as the world burns.  We become, in effect, accomplices.  Tickled by this schadenfreudeian thrill, we share in his murderous glee, delighting as goes about thinning the herd of the fatuous, idle rich.

McKellen’s Richard is Effectively an Elizabethan Tyler Durden from Fight Club.  He peers out of the screen at us, breaking the fourth wall and scampering across every layer of text to drag us into his cynical amorality.  And the first (and most famous) speech of the play is a perfect enactment of this seduction.  Here, the opening portion of the soliloquy (‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this sun of York…’ (1.1.1-2)) is delivered into a microphone, turned from an expositional aside into a beguiling toast of false flattery to a room full of the people he despises.  But it is in the second portion of the speech that he gets metatextual.  At first growling to himself as he uses the urinal (‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks…’ (1.1.14)), he eventually transitions into a direct address to the audience once he catches sight of us in the bathroom mirror.  It’s a wonderfully jolting piece of staging, emblematic of his beguiling stretch beyond the boundaries of his fiction: he peers out at us through a reflection of himself, his delivery dripping with sarcastic malice.***

Richard III close up

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

And from that point on, Richard is all of our focus.  Indeed, if there is one criticism that could be levelled at this film it is the decision to cut almost everything from the script not featuring, nor directly about, Richard – but it is entirely the right impulse.  McKellen is captivating in this film.  He tears every scene up, right through until the film’s frenzied, reworked endpoint, with the country beset by civil strife of his making, the monarchy rocked with multiple murders that he arranged, and Richard plunging himself backward into a maelstrom of hellfire, chewing a delighted grin.  He repurposes a line that in the play is delivered to his army: ‘Let us do it pell-mell; / If not in heaven, then hand in hand to hell’ (5.3.310-11), offering  the ultimate anarchist, punk-rock end.  He may as well have shouted ‘YOLO’ and flicked everyone off, with the new king, McNulty from The Wire, left to wonder why he too ever bothered to give a f**k.

Richard III YOLO

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Of course, by this point the viewer has long since become immune to Richard’s charms.  Like the punk movement itself, Richard’s  unchecked nihilism has played itself out and eventually the fun is over.  Richard becomes king – he win the day; getting it over on all his stupid relatives – but he doesn’t know when to stop, and inevitably pushes his twisted campaign too far.  As the play progresses he devolves from a charming schemer into a myopic, pathetic bully.  He starts lashing out at his underlings.  He turns on his loyal lackey Buckingham and has him killed.  He has his nephews murdered, even though they are already imprisoned at his mercy.  He’s not being witty or clever.  He’s no longer stinking it to the man.  He is the man.

McKellen’s version plays this tipping point beautifully, presenting it as the culmination of Richard’s blinding arrogance.  In this version he is shown sitting in state, watching his own coronation being played on a black and white film projector as the dispirited members of his court sit idle.  The camera circles him as he issues orders to Buckingham dismissively, barely turning his head, and smirking in cruel delight.  All the swagger that had so energised him earlier, the crafty, energetic conniving, is now slumped into facile complacency.  And it is in this moment of masturbatory self-reflection that he orders the royal heirs – his young nephews, who he has already imprisoned in the tower – dead.

Throughout the play Richard has brilliantly used his appearance to knock his accusers off guard, to make them underestimate him.  Oh, so you think I’m wicked just because I look freaky, and cannot flatter you? he asks his enemies, even as we are watching him perform a master-class of flattery and wickedness.  It makes people underestimate him.  And by this midpoint of the play we realise that he has done the same thing to us, the viewer.  We get charmed by Richard initially because he appears to be telling us the truth, taking us into his confidence in a way he seemingly never does anyone else in the play.  We are his co-conspirators, and the sensation is intoxicating.  But, of course, he’s not really treating us differently to anyone else.  We are just seduced like his followers were – just like Anne was – at the start of the play.  And we too will be ignored when we’re no longer of any use.

Richard is repeatedly shown invoking a telling imagery of horses.  He declares ‘I run before my horse to market’ (1.1.160) when he is getting ahead of himself in his scheming; calls himself a ‘pack-horse’ (1.3.122); and in the lead up to war seems particularly obsessive about horses, shouting for one when he wakes from his guilty nightmare (5.3.177), commanding his soldiers to ‘Spur your proud horses hard’ (5.3.340), and repeating the word four times in twelve lines of dialogue while issuing his battle plans (5.3.289-300).  And of course, after all of this, as he meets his end, abandoned on the battlefield, his famous final lines cry out to the universe for one thing:

‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ (5.4.13).

What we realise is that we were his horse for the play.  We held him aloft in our delight of his scheming.  But when that relationship turns sour – when we lose the sense that he is a whip-smart underdog punching upwards, and instead see him (as everyone else in the play has all along) as simply a petty, psychotic despot punching down, his charm is overthrown (to borrow a phrase) and we, his loyal horse, buck him, leaving him for dead.

And that’s where the film concludes: in Richard’s pseudo-suicide; with fire and death and fury.  But the most punk thing about the original play is that it doesn’t just end here.  It keeps going.  The genius of Shakespeare’s play is that it doesn’t sputter out on empty nihilism; or paper over it with a superficial happy resolve.  Having used Richard to denigrate the social order, belittling monarchy and embracing anarchy, Shakespeare flips the script and punks out on punk itself.  The play celebrates the restoration of the monarchy that Richard tore down, now with a renewed significance.

Indeed, despite having scoffed at the idea of kingship, Richard too, in the end, proves to be just as blinded by its charms.  Despite doing everything in his power to debase and undermine the position of king – himself having stripped that title of all meaning – on the day of battle he still believes that his name as England’s monarch will inspire his soldiers to fight for him.  Richard – rogue, anarchist, and sociopath – reveals that even he didn’t believe his own disaffected swagger.  But unsurprisingly, his men, disenchanted, fail him, despite being superior in numbers.  He becomes a victim of his own cynicism.

Just as punk music gave way to New Pop, just as postmodernism subsided to allow for post-ironic embrace of sincerity, Richard III reaffirms the monarchy by first blowing it up.  By undermining the whole position of king and kingship, Shakespeare fills the concept with meaning.  And so this, the final play in Shakespeare’s eight-play account of the War of the Roses* ultimately asserts that the people of this world need a king – their rightful king.  Shakespeare might have used the image of a ‘bottled spider’ and a ‘foul bunch-back’d toad’, McKellen might have used the Nazis and mutant boars, but both show the inherent danger of a nihilistic anarchic impulse that collapses in on itself when there is nothing else left to believe in.

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AS AN ASIDE:

Briefly, I should mention that I also listened to the audio production of Richard III, directed by David Timson and starring Kenneth Branagh, but I found it a little difficult to embrace.  Amidst some strong performances there are also a few moments of woeful overacting – even after you make allowances for the non-visual medium.  Clarence’s performance, in particular, is so hysterical that I was a little glad when his untimely death arrived, and Branagh himself doesn’t seem to entirely have a handle on his character.  His Richard spends the first half of the play fluctuating between a squirmy obsequiousness and a hiccoughy, giddy glee at how wicked he thinks he is, constantly rolling his words around in his mouth like he’s the moustache twirling villain of a telenovella.  To be fair, he gets considerably better when he embraces the ugly, snarling side of Richard later in the play, berating his soldiers and snapping at underlings, but as it is the early scenes that show Richard’s blindsiding charisma, it feels like something of an opportunity missed.

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* Punk was a movement in the mid seventies that rejected the excesses of mainstream rock.  It presented itself as anti-establishment and railed against the perceived evils of ‘selling out’.  It was about non-conformity and individual freedom of expression.

** This quote may have only been apocryphally attributed to Vicious.  But misapplying quotations without academic scrutiny?  That’s pretty punk.

*** The movie is also subversive in other, more subtle ways too.  This play is famous for its dialogue not simply by virtue of being a Shakespeare play, but because this text in particular has one of the most iconic opening lines in history: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’  Here, however, it is 10 full minutes before a single line of dialogue is spoken, as the stage setting is done in a lush, non-verbal montage.

**** In their order of historical chronology: Richard II, Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V, Henry VI pts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  However Richard III was written before the first four plays in this list.

richard-iii-(1995)-large-picture-still

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Texts mentioned:

Richard III, screenplay by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine, directed by Richard Loncraine, adapted from William Shakespeare.  (United Artists, 1995)

Richard III by William Shakespeare, ed by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge University Press, 1968)

Richard III by William Shakespeare (audiobook), directed by David Timson (Naxos, 2001)

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