The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1983), Jane Howell (Director)

I have finally understood why, at least for the last 30 years, Henry VI, part 1 is not taught or read: Jane Howell’s BBC production of The First part of Henry the Sixth took it out back and shot it. Repeatedly.

Where to begin?

The First Part of Henry the Sixth (Tv 1983) is not, strictly speaking, a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. While it does make use of some cinematic techniques, it is essentially a filmed staging of a stage play without any of the energy or tension which accompanies the live theatre experience.

That, I think, may be exactly where the problems start for Howell: she doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether this is a movie or a play. The result is a schizophrenic blend of kitsch costumes, tired stage conventions and amateurish camera work. It’s a distracting hot mess that seems especially designed only to confirm the popular opinion, that Henry VI part 1 is a bad play.

The sets and costumes look like they were produced for and by a high school drama class. One possible reason cited for this choice is to showcase the often petty and childish nature of the infighting which characterises the War of the Roses. However, I feel that it backfires in The First part of Henry the Sixth: instead of showing us the petty nature of the War of the Roses (which seems plain enough in Shakespeare’s language anyway), it turns Henry VI part 1 into a bit of a joke by cheapening what are also the very serious consequences of these wars. Very unfortunate.

Jane’s First Part of Henry the Sixth is part of a larger collection of made-for-TV movies produced by the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties. The BBC television Shakespeare was an ambitious project not entirely unlike the Bard Brawl’s in scope: to produce a filmed version of each one of Shakespeare’s plays. And to their credit, they did manage to complete the project – you can order the complete 38 DVD set from the BBC or on Amazon and then you will own this gem forever! Or you can buy something you’ll actually watch. Whatever.

Given that the purpose of the BBC’s project was to produce largely faithful to the text versions of these plays, Howell’s film works its way through Shakespeare’s play without any noticeable leaps, omissions or inventions on Howell’s part. The setting of the play is fifteenth century Europe and it opens with English nobility gathered for Henry V’s funeral. The language is Shakespeare’s and the movie ends where Shakespeare’s play ends.

One of the few differences: Howell chose to open the film with a dirge sung by Henry V’s son who was played by 40 year-old Peter Benson.

I guess they missed the part where Henry VI was nine months old when his father was killed, and about 12 years-old during the rest of the play.

I’ll spare you the plot synopsis seeing as we’ve already done one for each act and Howell’s film follows almost exactly Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. (You can refer to our previous posts on Henry VI, part 1 if you need a quick plot reminder.)

After all of this, is The First Part of Henry VI a total wash? No. There are a few, precious – oh, so very rare and precious – pearls locked up within this clam.

Trevor Peacock manages to deliver a Talbot which is every bit the hardened, noble English warrior of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. Brenda Blethyn plays a very energetic and active Joan who has the entire French court wrapped around her fingers. Too bad the stage fighting, a large part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1, is so bad. It just turned Pucelle’s fight with Talbot – which is one of many great action scenes in this play – into a farce

As I watch this, I wonder why Howell insists on draining just about every one of the action sequences of its dramatic potential?

In my opinion, however, the strongest and most successful character is Richard Planatagent, Duke of York who is played by none other than the brilliant Bernard Hill. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it should. But maybe you know him by his other name, King Théoden of Rohan.

While the BBC’s project to adapt every one of Shakespeare’s plays to film verbatim was an excellent initiative from an archival perspective, it really failed to produce something that brings Shakespeare to a new audience in a way which is both easily accessible and engaging. In the end, Howell’s choices in The First Part of Henry the Sixth results in a finished product which is alienating and off-putting.

The First Part of Henry the Sixth remains an excellent study… in how NOT to bring Shakespeare’s works to life.

(Eric Jean is co-creator of the Bard Brawl.)

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Scotland, Pa. (2001), Billy Morrisette (writer/director)

Jay Reid

“We’re not bad people, Mac.  We’re just underachievers that need to make up for lost time.” – Pat McBeth.

If Maura Tierney said that to me, I’d probably be okay with killing my jerk of a boss too.  Tierney plays Pat McBeth, writer/director Billy Morrisette’s Lady MacBeth in Scotland, PA, his unusual adaptation of the Bard’s Scottish classic Macbeth.

A lot of guys will do crazy things for love, but James LeGros’s “Mac” (Macbeth) certainly takes it the extra mile.  Tierney is the type of hot, cool chick with a wicked streak that a lot of guys would probably do unspeakable things for (not that I ever did).  Sure she can be a bit crazy and mean, but she’s got a certain appeal for men looking for something more than the typical girly chick.  She’s the type of girl who could chug more beers than your pals.  The type of girl who doesn’t mind having sex in the back room of a fast food joint.  The type of girl that brightens up your life and you’d do anything for because you want to keep her happy and you don’t want to screw it up. Mac, poor hapless schmuck that he is, gets sucked into her scheme to move up the fast food chain at the local burger joint where they both work.

Morrisette relocates the play from the castles and moors of Scotland to a thriving restaurant in a sleepy Pennsylvanian suburb in the 70s, which means the soundtrack is going to be chock full of classic rock hits.  Unfortunately, most of the tracks are from Bad Company, but despite the lack of variety, it’s still appreciated. If you don’t like the movie, you’ll probably enjoy the music at least.

The burger joint is run by Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn).  He’s a bit of dorky dad, trying to push his sons into taking over the family business, although they seem more interested in being rock stars or exploring their sexuality than managing their father’s legacy.  Norm steals good ideas from the underappreciated Mac, who actually works hard at his job and does have an interest in taking over the restaurant.  Norm is about to take Mac’s best idea, a drive-through window, and make a huge profit.  Does he thank Mac?  Apparently not enough or there would be no movie.  He makes one of his disinterested sons into a manager instead of Mac, which is really the last straw for this struggling burger flipper and his wife.  Tired of getting passed over, Mac and Pat take matters into their own hands, leading to one of the most ridiculous and hilarious ways to dispatch a character in Shakespeare’s history.  Without giving too much away, it involves a deep fryer.

The film’s most interesting characters are Mac and Pat, while the others are broadly drawn spins on Shakespeare’s characters.  They will make you laugh, but it’s hard to invest in any of them.  So when they start getting killed off as Mac slaughters his way to the top, you just kind of shrug.  So it goes.

Christopher Walken has an interesting turn as Lieutenant MacDuff who investigates Norm’s death after Mac and Pat take over the restaurant and turn it into McDonalds style fast-food joint.  Walken plays typical Walken, amusing and menacing at the same time.  While he puts some pressure on the main characters with his presence, he isn’t really much of a foil.  The last battle between him and Mac lacks drama, and while I wasn’t expecting an epic sword fight, it seems a bit anticlimactic.

There are plenty of clever spins on scenes and characters in the original story in Scotland, PA, and each of the changes fit the setting in the film.   Yes, Lady Macbeth/Pat has something that won’t come off her hands, but it isn’t blood.  And the three witches are in there, but they’ve been transformed into three stoners who hang around an amusement park.  One of them (Amy Smart), dresses like a fortune teller, promising Mac future glory in the restaurant business.

Scotland, PA is more of a dark comedy than anything else, but it’s perhaps only funny for the serious Shakespeare fan.  Other than that, aside from a few fun scenes, it’s fairly unremarkable, which is why it might be hard to find on DVD.  It lacks the drama and tragedy of the original story, which makes it difficult to invest in the outcome of events.  You can invest in the love story between Mac and Pat, who strive to achieve success as underachievers.

It’s a Macbeth adaptation that is about more than ruthless ambition.  Mac may be interested in becoming a big shot, but he does everything because he loves Pat and wants to make her happy.  While Pat may come across as manipulative, she sees her husband struggling and wants more for him and for herself.  She wants to live the good suburban life, full of big houses, flashy cars and swimming pools.

It seems odd to set Macbeth in a burger joint, since killing your way to owning a restaurant pales in comparison to becoming King of Scotland, but it works within the setting of 1970s America – the Me Decade.  The characters in the film are so well established that you understand that taking over this restaurant and making it into a successful business means as much to them as becoming King.  They are down and out, slaving away in their menial jobs and drinking themselves into a stupor in some suburb like every other poor sap and for a brief moment, they see a chance to take their piece of the American Dream.  Would you really blame them for trying?

Jay Reid is the Bard Brawl social media co-ordinator and contributor to its blog and podcast. His short film Byline is in post-production and due out later this year.

Looking for Richard (1996), Director Al Pacino

Laura MacDonald

Prologue

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
                        Richard III, 1. 2

As anyone who has lived with me can attest, I am a notoriously grumpy movie watcher and as this video was popped into the DVD player I muttered, “There better not be any special features.  This movie is, like, all special features.  All behind the scenes stuff…grumble, grumble…”

To which my much better half replied, “That’s pretty much what a documentary is, sweetie.”

I responded with silence (silence and the sound of a chip bag being opened).

Looking for Richard and Finding Al

It’s a docu-drama type thing.

Al Pacino

Spot on, Al.  Spot on.

Touted as a behind-the-scenes look at the production of an American film version of Richard the III, featuring one of Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains, we watch the tension, the struggle and the efforts to understand Shakespeare from a modern day perspective and yet, here’s the catch: there is no movie being filmed.

This is the movie.  Richard the III is not.

Looking for Richard is a movie about Al Pacino playing Richard.  Cultivating the perfect scenario where he can rule the Shakespearean landscape as he sees fit, cutting and pasting the text to meet his aim, charming famous actors into joining him in his ill-defined endeavour, ruling the silver-screen…his way.

Sound familiar?  Richard as King, Al as director.

Hmmmm…

Now, after tactlessly implying that Al Pacino is an amoral, murderous, covetous scoundrel, I will follow up by saying that I really did enjoy some of his directorial choices.   The aim, as stated early in the film, is to make Shakespeare accessible to an American audience.  I believe that they have achieved this in Looking for Richard – that by the end of the movie we, the audience, do find him.

By allowing us to sit in on the table readings and the discussions and debates that ensue, we learn about the play along with all the famous players in this film (Hey! That’s the premise for the Bard Brawl).  As audience members, we aren’t intimidated because we can see that we are not the only ones who are confused.  Even the seasoned actors are more than a little bit muddled. We are merely joining the ranks of centuries of confused Shakespeare-o-phobes.

We are also given a glimpse at the common-folk as Pacino and co. take a casual walk down a New York street falling into lockstep with locals who give their two cents on Shakespeare.  They meet resistance (“It sucked”).  They meet clichés (“To be, or not to be”). They meet pragmatic Brits (“He’s a great export”).  They also meet a wise-beyond-his-toothless-grin man who believes that Shakespearean language gives us access to our feelings and that, “if we felt what we said we’d say less and mean more.”

Yeah, what that guy said.

Pacino also does a beautiful (albeit an overt) job of juxtaposing the urban New York landscape with the opening lines from Richard the III and we start to see how that Shakespeare can thrive in modernity.  Thrive but not without obstacles.  We watch as Pacino and his gregarious cohort Frederick Kimball try to seek inspiration by travelling to England to visit the actual birth room of Shakespeare only to be interrupted by the sound of sirens.  Alternatively, there is a lovely brief moment when Pacino is walking down some city street and we can hear the sound of horse hooves clopping by.

It gives a whole new meaning to the word timeless.

Another shining moment in the film is when Kimball is explaining iambic pentameter by comparing an iamb to an anteater:

And five of them: Da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da.  Make a pentameter line, five iambs.  An iamb is like an anteater. Very high in the back and very short, little front legs: da-DA!

You just can’t beat a solid anteater analogy.

What falls short in Looking for Richard are the scenes from the “movie they are filming”; all the characters seem considerably more believable with their backwards baseball caps, messy hair and civvies.  Their Elizabethan garb becomes a distraction and actually goes against their effort to make Shakespeare accessible to an audience that is not familiar with the plays.  This is not to say that it never works but, in the context of this film, when we are being thrown from rehearsal to table work and back, from in-costume to baseball cap to in-costume again; from trendy Ray Bans to bejeweled crowns, it is a lot to take in .  Pacino, speaking about the language of Shakespeare, asserts that it is not difficult.  He just says, “you have to tune up”.  I would suggest that he take his own advice when it comes to the costume as well – our eyes need to get accustomed to the floppy hats, over-sized crowns and Alec Baldwin in a puffy Seinfeldian shirt.

Truth be told, I started getting anxiety while watching Looking for Richard but was too scared to ask if the movie version of Richard III was ever really produced because if it was, I might have to watch it.  One of the scholars in the film stated that “The action of the play, the sense of exciting movement is Richard’s finding out the point beyond which people won’t go.” I believe that sentiment holds true for this film as well.

Epilogue

An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.
                        Richard III, 4. 4

In terms of introducing an unfamiliar play to the general masses, Pacino was on the right track by stacking the deck with so many familiar faces: Alec Baldwin, Derek Jacobi, Sir Arthur John Gielgud, Winona Ryder, Kenneth Branagh, the principal from The Breakfast Club (though he has no lines, let alone a gem like “Don’t mess with the bull, young man.  You’ll get the horns”) and Kevin Spacey, to name a few.  We get a peek at the struggle and discovery involved in putting up Shakespeare for a modern day audience.  Or at least the struggle involved with thinking of putting it up.  And since struggle and discovery are the ingredients to every good quest, I say it’s worth embarking on the journey…as long as you have plenty of chips.

Laura Macdonald

Richard III (1955), Laurence Olivier (director)

Daniel J. Rowe

Though in a certain sense dated, Olivier’s Richard III is a great piece of film largely thanks to the director/star’s scene chewing greatness.

When looking at William Shakespeare’s work on film, one will, in a very short time, collide with “cinema’s first great Shakespearean artist“, the godfather of them all, Sir Laurence Olivier.

Richard III is the final of his three directorial efforts (he acted in eight); the other two being Hamlet (1948) and Henry V (1944). He began what Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh continued. Branagh, like Olivier, started his bard-on-film odyssey with Henry V. Sir Kenneth followed that promise by bumbling through roles he had no business playing (Hamlet, Iago), and hasn’t done much for a while. Here’s hoping he doesn’t decide to cast himself as R III.

Olivier’s Richard III suffers from one thing: age. It is hard for a contemporary viewer to appreciate the film when Richard Loncraine’s 1995 adaptation is staring us in the face. Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard is just so sexy. The ascetic of Olivier’s R III suffers datedness in three respects: costumes, set and music. Oh the music. So bad.

By the way, are we a little fast and loose with the knighthoods Windsors? I guess all it takes is making a few Shakespeare movies and you’re in.

The “it’s dated” criticism, even with the billowy tights and static sets, misses the forest for the trees however (ask Macbeth the consequences of that). Richard III is always about the title character. If Richard is good, so goes the production. Olivier is, surprise, surprise, very good. He bounces through his manipulation of the Yorkish court with the cheshire cat grin of a true sadist. He loves what he’s doing, and dreads it in the same scene at times. His soliloques to camera are chilling, as are his “friendly” moments with his nephews. Olivier, as per normal, chews up the scenery.

His directorial choices, as well, work. He splits speeches and changes the order or scenes to make the very confusing plot of the play make a little more sense. He opens with the court, so we can at least see the characters of Richard’s opening soliloquy. Of course the opening, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” loses a little power if not performed loud and proud on fade in.

The use of shadows is a little obvious. Yes we get it, Richard is a shadowy figure whose only pleasure is to “spy my shadow in the sun and descant on mine own deformity.” The director’s choice is understandable, as is the Edward court brightly lit, Richard court gloomy lit decision.

A particularly good scene is Richard’s coronation. Lady Anne (Claire Bloom) plays torture victim off Richard’s Machiavel creating a gut wrenching balance of hell that is the last York king’s court. The murder of Clarence (Sir John Gielgud) is harsh, hard to watch and perfect in its callousness. Gielgud, another knight, it should be noted, was called the greatest Shakespearean actor of the 20th century; he was in Branagh’s Hamlet and died in 2000. He directed his own version of Hamlet in 1964.

The historical Richard III has recently found his way into the headlines with the discovery of a skeleton thought to be his under a carpark. His historical footprint has been as much outlined by Shakespeare as any scholar, and thus the play remains important.

Olivier’s Richard III is worth the watch. Richard ranks with Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello as Shakespeare’s finest and most difficult characters. Any bard brawler must appreciate the role, and catch a master knee deep in the guck. Olivier is a master.

Note to Queen Elizabeth II: We bard brawlers are part of the commonwealth and waiting for our knighthoods.

Daniel J. Rowe is c0-creator of the Bard Brawl.DSC_0180

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