Thursday, May 13, 2010

Without the dumb hats, as you like it

Honestly, when my students and I first started watching and critiquing this production, I didn't think I'd be able to slog my way through it. I mean, LOOK AT THOSE HATS. Seriously. I'm not certain if those hats have ever existed for women's wear outside the confines of the princess dress-up box the girls used to have in their playroom. I find them horrifying, although I've kind of become accustomed to the fact that Laurence Olivier? Big fan of the tights, he was. BIG fan.

Anyway, it got off to a bit of a slow start. But now that all the major characters have been kicked out of their homes and banished to the Forest of Arden, things have picked up a lot. I actually found myself smiling yesterday over some fun sight gags, including Elizabeth Bergner (pointy hat on the right) as Rosalind as Ganymede -- phew! -- repeatedly poking and bonking Laurence-as-Orlando about the head and neck with one of his rolled up poems.

As the kids and I discussed later, sometimes you can get a pleasant surprise. A book, a movie, a play that is a slow-starter can all of a sudden develop a bit of a shine. I'm glad to say that this production, which was directed by Paul Czinner and released in 1937 by Twentieth Century Fox studios, has done just that. And that's saying something, since I'm a purist who generally disapproves of Shakespeare's scripts being hacked and chopped with a heavy hand: this should-be-about-150-minute play was reduced to something like ninety-five minutes. That's a lot of cutting!

Not so much for the BBC version. It was made for television, which should sound a dire warning knell in your head. It sure did in mine, "made-for-TV" being synonymous with "crummy production values and wooden acting on an extremely limited budget." This version of As You Like It, released several years ago by Ambrose Video as part of a VERY EXPENSIVE SET of Shakespearean comedies, is just....the pits. I don't know how else to describe it. It was directed by Basil Coleman and released in Great Britain in 1978 and it's just a sad, lackluster little production. Even lovely Helen Mirren can't do much to save it, although the actor playing Corin (David Lloyd Meredith) had a little oomph to him. And Angharad Rees as Celia is just a cutie pie, although I don't think that she and Helen Mirren were given nearly enough of a chance to express their girlish goofy fun.

For the first time yesterday, Orlando (Brian Stirner) finally cracked a smile and gave poor Helen something to actually work with. Up until that point, he's gone around either with an expressionless face or with a furrowed brow. I keep looking for some spark of life in the man, since he's playing such a dashing hero, but what I keep getting is that he really has to poop and is inwardly wondering how long it will be before the director calls out, "Cut!!! Everybody take five!"

All this makes me hungry for two things:

1) Watching the Kenneth Branagh version of As You Like It in two weeks with the class, and;

2) Going to Stratford and seeing the play performed live onstage at the Festival Theater...I can hardly wait. No matter how good a filmed production is, the energy of live theater is a whole different animal. Plus, we have, like, the MOST AWESOME seats for the performance. And, heaven be thanked, it is not a freaking student matinee, so that what's going on onstage is completely eclipsed by what's going on in the audience, with the cell phones and the constant talking and the wadding up pages from the playbill and lobbing them over the balcony every time the house lights go down. Never. Again. Ever.


Stratfordfest said...

These "As You Like It" posts have me chuckling the whole time. I'm glad I'm not the only one that cannot stand the BBC version of Shakespeare's shows.
Aaron Kropf
Social and Online Media Coordinator
Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Shelley said...

Oh, Aaron...have you seen any of the rest of those Ambrose videos? I paid precisely one arm and both legs for those stinkers and every last one of them is just foul.

In the spring of 2008, I taught a workshop on "The Taming of the Shrew" in preparation for our group to travel to Stratford that October to see the play onstage.

To my complete dismay, the BBC version -- which starred John Cleese as Petruchio! So you'd think it'd be funny! But it wasn't! -- was so dull, I thought I'd slump to the ground, unconscious, and that my students would all step on my body as they exited the classroom in search of some bawdy fun of their own, since they obviously weren't going to get any from that hot mess.

I think the tagline for that set of videos should be "The BBC Presents the Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Even the Comedies are Tragedies."

Stratfordfest said...

Shelly, I have not watched any of the Ambrose videos, and the pitch you give has me avoiding them at all costs.
I have, unfortunately, watch almost every BBC video and it caused much weeping. But nothing has induced as much rage as Mel Gibson's version of Hamlet...not sure what possessed me to purchase that video.
When will you be here to see As You Like It?

Shelley said...

Our little group will be in Stratford the first week of September. It just can't get here fast enough, although I'm ruefully aware that I'm wishing my summer away.

And about those videos - the Ambrose videos are the BBC videos. I guess Ambrose released them in the United States? I don't know, but I can see I've been unclear. Yes, the BBC vids are ubiquitously terrible and as I said, I can't figure out why. There are several different directors. There are some very famous actors. How could every one of them be so very, very bad?

The BBC Macbeth was so bad, I told my class that the wicked thane wasn't the only one seeing a dagger before him....

I'm perishing to know what you hated so much about Mel Gibson's Hamlet. I'm divided in my opinion of that one, myself.

On the one hand, Mel played his role with that wild-eyed kind of crazy that he brought to his Lethal Weapon roles, which wasn't such a bad thing. On the other hand, it was. I've mentioned that in a post here. It was a one-dimensional performance, but effective, I felt, since the script was cut down so much, there wasn't really enough time to explore that character with any more depth.

It definitely wasn't a nuanced performance and he played it as broad as the side of a barn.

The thing I thought was ludicrous about Mel is that he was way too old to be Hamlet.

I really, really liked Glenn Close as Gertrude. She just oooozed sin. I thought she was deliciously wicked, all that girlish prancing about with Claudius with her corrupt heart beating under her pretty dress. What did you think?

Helena Bonham Carter was a fairly decent Ophelia, although I think that once you've seen Kate Winslet in Kenneth Branagh's version, you might just as well stop right there.

So on the whole, while I thought the production was flawed by the extreme cutting of the script, I thought it was a good Hollywoodish view, a great attention grabber for the high school/middle school aged kids I teach. So I didn't feel rage and as I said, I'd dearly like to know why you did.

My thought about Shakespeare on DVD is that you almost have to buy all of them, to compare and contrast and sit in your living room booing with abandon from time to time and throwing popcorn at the television screen. But other times, you just sit there in luxury, soaking it in, which is how I feel about the commedia dell'arte version of The Taming of the Shrew from the Broadway Theater Archive. Have you ever seen that?

Stratfordfest said...

I would say my issue with Mel's Hamlet was for the same reasons you mentioned. And the insestuous kiss that happened between Gertrude and Hamlet was not what I was expecting. But my biggest issue was the with the cuts that were made, it made it difficult to follow at times due to the remixing of the scenes. But you are correct with your Glenn Close comment.
I should say that I did love the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. It kept my attention and actually enjoyed the modern setting. The cuts didn't seem to affect my enjoyment like the Mel Gibson version.
I had no idea it was a different company that released the BBC videos in the USA. I guess I really do learn something new every day.

Shelley said...

I agree about the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. I loved that brooding ennui on the outer man with something-just-a-little-scary stirring beneath the surface. I thought the modern setting was really interesting - I'm not as much of a purist about that kind of thing as I am about the slashing of the script. It's always very interesting to see what different directors and actors will do with the same 400 year old words. Keeps it all very fresh and alive.

I'd forgotten about Mel and Glenn's incestuous kiss, and ewwwww.... Maybe I'd mentally blocked it? But you know, Franco Zeffirelli wasn't the first one to come up with that theme of incest. Have you ever seen Hamlet with Laurence Olivier? He played Hamlet and directed the production as well.

I've read several articles about his production, and all of them talk about Olivier's Oedipal fixation with the two characters. One article stated that Olivier had Gertrude's "closet" decorated with a sumptuous, huge bed all draped with satin in order to put viewers in mind of a loooove nest as mother and son played out their scene. And can we just all go throw up now?

Here's the URL to an article that kind of sums that all up:

I personally don't cotton to all this psychological analysis of what seems to me to be a pretty straightforward script. I mean, isn't it enough that Hamlet finds out that his usurping uncle killed his father plus was having an adulterous relationship with his mother and that his mother might have had a hand in his father's death?

Isn't that enough? For Pete's sake, that would drive me around the bend and I'm not a slightly bi-polar university student from Denmark. :)