Our reading of Richard III last night was a great success, despite the rainy evening. You can find our Richard program here, which includes historical background and scene summaries courtesy of our director, Angeline Morris. Below, for your viewing pleasure, you can find alternate poster designs from UA art students we thought worthy of honorable mention.
In Trevor Nunn’s 1996 “Twelfth Night,” possibly the best, or at least among the top, film adaptations of this comedy, Toby Stephens plays Orsino as a languid, distant melancholic.
So it took me a number of double-takes to recognize the same actor — now fiery red-headed, apparently his natural coloring — 20 years later, as bloody, devious Capt. Flint from the lush pirate epic “Black Sails,” a “Games of Thrones”-ish (heavily peopled, disturbingly graphic, reliant much like “Vikings” on period detail, lavishing bucks building actual working ships for ramming and wrecking) production, set in the Bahamas but filmed in South Africa.
It ran four years on Starz, 2014-2017, and you can get it on disc. I found the Blu rays worth the extra dollars; it’s a vivid, beautiful mess.
Stephens works heavily in theater, especially for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as did his parents — more on them in a bit — but he’s been in movies such as Sally Potter’s 1992 “Orlando,” from the Virginia Woolf novel, and Tilda Swinton’s breakthrough role; as the villain in the 2002 Bond movie “Die Another Day,” Gustav Graves; in a 2000 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” as Jay Gatz: and on TV series and miniseries such as the 2006 “Jane Eyre,” playing Rochester. He’s currently John Robinson on the new “Lost in Space” series.
Stephens burned through “Black Sails” as Flint, a former naval officer leaving more than one twisted tale in his wake, a sort-of prequel to “Treasure Island” that mixes Robert Louis Stevenson’s characters (such as Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones) with real-world pirates such as Anne Bonny, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, “Calico Jack” Rackham (who created the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger flag) and Israel Hands, one of the few who was both historical figure and “Treasure Island” character.
It’s a bloody fine time, if you can abide graphic realism in your sax and violins.
Wonderfully atmospheric music by Bear McCreary, who also composed/composes for “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Walking Dead,” “Outlander” (if you listen, you can hear the “Outlander” theme, “Skye Boat Song,” playing in a bar in “Black Sails”) and others.
McCreary’s one of the rare proteges taken on by film and theater legend Elmer Bernstein, composer for “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Hud,” “Ghostbusters,” “Animal House”… on and on. Though he was NOT related to Leonard Bernstein; just pals, distinguished from one another in their field as Bernstein West and Bernstein East, because while both composed for theater and film, Elmer leaned more LA while Leonard worked more in NYC. Also pronounced differently: Elmer BERN-steen, and Leonard BERN-stine.
Now back to our regularly scheduled Brit-theatrical deep-dive.
Because he carries his father’s name, I didn’t know until imdbing, the day after the Improbable Fictions’ latest staged reading of “Twelfth Night,” that Toby Stephens is the son of Dame Maggie Smith.
The Dame Maggie Smith.
That Dame Maggie Smith. Violet Crawley, Minerva McGonagall, Miss Jean Brodie, and various goddesses, matriarchs and acid-tongued ladies of stage and screen for the past 60 years.
Stephens’ older brother, Smith’s other son, Chris Larkin, has one of those character-actor faces you’ll likely recognize, having been in “Master and Commander,” “Valkyrie,” “Jane Eyre,” and numerous others. Larkin also co-starred on “Black Sails” (as Captain Berringer), as did Stephens’ wife, Anna-Louise Plowman (as Mrs. Hudson), who you might remember from “Stargate SG-1,” or an Eccleston “Doctor Who” episode, or….The “Black Sails” actor who played Anne Bonny was born Lady Clara Elizabeth Iris Paget, daughter of the Marquess of Anglesey.
Aside from being born near-royalty himself as Maggie Smith’s son, Toby Stephens is also step-son to Patricia Quinn, who was the fourth wife of another RSC giant, Sir Robert Stephens, once thought to be the next Laurence Olivier, though heavy drinking dropped him into the gutter.
But after remarrying and sobering up (at least somewhat), then came a somewhat on-the-nose comeback: Robert Stephens won the ’93 Olivier Award for his Falstaff. The RSC also invited him back to play Lear and Julius Caesar. Stephens was knighted early in ’95; deceased in late ’95.
While still married, Stephens and Smith starred in the 1967 film of “Much Ado About Nothing,” as Benedick and Beatrice, built around a stage adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who you might know from every other Shakespeare film ever, but especially the beloved 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” for which Stephens played The Prince, and Olivier (uncredited) narrated and played Lord Montague. Zeffirelli directed Larkin in a 1996 “Jane Eyre,” though not brother Stephens in the 2006 “Jane Eyre.”
The elder Stephens worked with Kenneth Branagh (who directed and starred in the 1993 “Much Ado” movie opposite HIS then-wife, Emma Thompson) on the 1989 film “Henry V,” as “Auncient” Pistol, while Smith of course worked with Branagh in the Harry Potter movies.
But then everyone’s worked with Branagh, the English Kevin Bacon.
Both Stephens and Smith worked with Olivier in productions of “Othello,” as Iago and Desdemona … though separately.
Oh yeah, and Stephens’ aforementioned fourth wife, Patricia Quinn? You’ll recognize her as Magenta from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Those are her lips at the beginning, mouthing “Science Fiction, Double Feature,” though the voice belongs to her old friend Richard O’Brien, aka Riff Raff, who wrote the musical “RHPS”‘s based on. Quinn’s nephew is the drummer for Snow Patrol.
My new favorite Toby Stephens quote: “Actors don’t listen to each other. You’re so obsessed with what you’re saying or doing that the other person could be talking in Swahili and you wouldn’t know.”
There’s really no point to all this meandering, except that theatrical life can be far more incestuous, twisted and intriguing than just about anyone’s, with the possible exception of perhaps actual royalty.
~Mark Hughes Cobb
Last night’s event was wonderfully acted and followed by a compelling discussion of the walls between us (physical and cultural). Here is a list of the scenes that were performed and some photos of the event, courtesy of MK Foster.
We’re hoping to soon be able to offer IF’s performances in a high quality audio format, and “Early Modern Strangers” will be our first foray into that space. We’ll keep you informed as we know more.
On Monday, April 24th at 7:30pm at the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center, Improbable Fictions will present Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Pre-show music begins at 7:10pm. As always, IF events are free and open to the public.
(The IF event will not star Sara Bernhardt as Cleopatra. Apologies.)
If you consider yourself a film or science fiction geek and haven’t seen Forbidden Planet before, consider this Wednesday your chance to get right with the world before your geek license is revoked. This movie sets up so many tropes that will come to be hated and adored in later films. For more, see Dr. Russ McConnell’s program notes below:
The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s final plays, is about Prospero, powerful magician and rightful Duke of Milan, and his teenage daughter Miranda, who have spent twelve years on an island after Prospero’s villainous brother Antonio (aided by Alonso, King of Naples) usurped his position and set him and Miranda adrift at sea. They are not the only inhabitants of the island: Prospero is served by the supernatural spirit Ariel and the monstrous, animalistic creature Caliban. When Prospero learns that his brother Antonio is passing close by the island on a ship, he conjures up a tempest to wreck the ship to bring Antonio and his retinue to the island. This retinue includes Prospero’s old and faithful servant Gonzalo, Antonio’s co-conspirator Alonso, and Alonso’s son Ferdinand. The shipwrecked characters explore the island, having various adventures and plotting intrigues, secretly observed by Prospero. Ferdinand meets and falls in love with Miranda, and her father (although secretly approving of the union) forces Ferdinand to become his servant to prove his worth and sincerity. In the end, Prospero brings all the main characters together in a scene of forgiveness and reconciliation, which culminates in Ferdinand and Miranda becoming engaged, Ariel being freed, and plans being made to return to Italy. Prospero resolves to bring an end to his magic: “I’ll break my staff…I’ll drown my book.” In this moment, Prospero is often read as representing Shakespeare himself, the playwright finally declaring an end to his glorious career as a master creator of theatrical magic.
In recent decades, The Tempest has often been read as a play about European colonialism, with Ariel and Caliban as colonized natives. Alternatively, Caliban’s physical appetites (both sexual and bibulous) have caused some readers to identify him less with the oppressed colonial subject than with the repressed Freudian id, opening up the possibility of psychoanalytic interpretations.
There have been many adaptations of The Tempest over the centuries, including The Tempest or, The Enchanted Island produced by John Dryden and William Davenant in 1670 and an operatic version by Thomas Shadwell in 1764. Shakespeare’s original text did not make a reappearance until William Charles Macready’s version of 1838. Adaptations continued in the 20th century, eventually making the move from stage to film.
Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 film adaptation Forbidden Planet is set on the extraterrestrial world of Altair IV, now colonized by humans, but formerly the home of the Krell, a now-extinct alien species. The film is the first to depict human beings travelling through interstellar space on a craft of their own making, and the first set entirely on another planet, in a remote solar system. The film’s equivalent of Shakespeare’s Ariel is Robby the Robot, and as a piece of technology rather than an enslaved spirit, he seems calculated to avoid inspiring any sense of guilt or distress in a 20th-century audience. He is a creation of the scientist Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who rules Altair IV, whose intelligence has been enhanced to a superhuman level by an encounter with ancient Krell technology, and whose knowledge is beyond the comprehension of the other characters, who consist of the crew of starship C-57D, led by Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen). Ultimately, however, their suspicion that no individual human being, however intelligent, can be trusted with such power proves to be vindicated.
Perhaps Forbidden Planet’s greatest innovation is its version of Caliban: a terrifying invisible beast that stalks the planet at night, hunting the crew of C-57D. The true origin of this monster is one of the film’s best surprises. Even though this origin depends upon a theory that Morbius describes as “obsolete,” it nevertheless neatly explains both the monster itself and the extinction of the ancient Krell, as well as evoking a major strand of critical interpretation of The Tempest.
The conclusion of the film departs somewhat from that of its source-text, having some elements of tragedy, and being less about forgiveness and reconciliation than about the essential fallibility of human nature (and, as it turns out, alien nature as well). While in The Tempest, Sycorax’s magic is characterized as full of “earthy and abhorred commands” in contrast to the good magic of Prospero, in Forbidden Planet, the super-science of Morbius turns out to encompass both halves of this dichotomy.
~ Dr. Russ McConnell
Shakespeare on Film, 2014-15
September 15_________Ten Things I Hate About You
November 4_________________The Bad Sleep Well
November 23___________Shakespeare Behind Bars
December 16_________________To Be Or Not to Be
January 19______________________West Side Story
February 16________________Deliver Us From Eva
March 11_____________________Forbidden Planet
April 27___________________Love’s Labour’s Lost
The Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
All films are free and open to the public.
Here you can find the program notes for last week’s screening of Deliver Us From Eva.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Although we are accustomed to thinking of Shakespeare as the author of The Taming of the Shrew, this title is first formally established in reference to an anonymous play entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1594. The Stationers’ Register comprises the records maintained by the Stationers’ Company of London, which was a guild which has operated under royal charter since 1557 to regulate practices within the book trade, from printing to bookbinding and bookselling, and in this case it alerts us to what appears to be the first printing of a ‘bad’ quarto version of Shakespeare’s play, probably reconstructed from memory by actors of The Taming of the Shrew. The date of The Taming of the Shrew is a complex question, as there are only scant records about early performances, including a reference again from 1594 to a play called ‘The Tamynge of A Shrowe’ in Philip Henslowe’s Diary which was intriguingly played in the same week as Andronicus which may well have been another early Shakespearean work, Titus Andronicus. However, whilst the first known official attribution of The Taming of the Shrew to Shakespeare comes to us through the First Folio of 1623, the combination of printed and manuscript archival records strongly suggest that this is one of his earliest dramatic creations, and scholarly consensus currently points to a composition date between 1590 and 1591.
As one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, it is interesting that The Taming of the Shrew draws extensively upon Renaissance comedic pop culture for its narrative: although very few direct sources have been identified for the play’s main characters, the forthright and unforgiving Katherina and her would-be suitor Petruchio, the idea of woman-as-shrew, or scold, was a stock subject for jestbooks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The ‘scolding of a shrew’ is listed as one of the ‘six ill sounds’ of the world in a joke book in the mid-seventeenth century, the Merry Drollery of 1661 offers guidelines on ‘how to choose a shrew’ in its ‘Advice to Bachelors’, whilst in 1693 a ‘merry Poet’ recalls a tale in which a ‘newly married man’ offers his ‘shrewd wife’ as the best form of torture to punish a wolf who has been ravaging local villagers. Along with Shakespeare’s own Katherina, these examples represent an intriguing combination of deep-rooted misogyny with humor in a way which can be deeply unsettling to modern audiences. It is worth considering the fact that in Richard II in 1597 Shakespeare uses the adjective ‘shrewd’ to indicate the danger of a very sharp sword, and for modern spectators, the shrew may yet be able to transform from a standing joke into a cunning and worthy opponent for her male detractors.
Deliver Us From Eva directed by Gary Hardwick (2003)
In this adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, Eva Dandridge (Gabrielle Union) is a Los Angeles Health Inspector whose career attributes of perfectionism, directness, and bouts of officiousness are not well-received when she applies them at home to minister to the personal lives of her three sisters. Each of the three younger sisters’ plans are thwarted by Eva’s interference, and by reconfiguring Shakespeare’s sisterly dynamic between Katherina and Bianca in relation not only to Eva’s personal qualities but also her professional life, Hardwick’s film begins to elucidate a slightly different picture of the modern-day shrew than that put forth on the early modern stage. For although Eva is, in her own words, ‘uncompromising’ and ‘wear[s] it as a badge of honor’, she is true to her word when she states of ‘principle’ that ‘maybe the world is in short supply, but I am not’. Indeed, Eva takes the concept of the early modern shrew and uses it to launch a stinging attack in a battle of the sexes as she describes ‘women who aspire to culture, and men who aspire to scratch themselves’. In keeping with the source material, Eva hits so hard with her sweeping critique of all men that her words venture into misandry, but as director Hardwick has stated, she emerges as a ‘turbo-feminist’. As in Shakespeare’s play, a potential suitor is recruited for Eva, the ‘Master Player’, Ray Adams (LL Cool J), who is paid by Eva’s three brothers-in-law to distract, seduce, and then dump her. The brothers-in-law hope that Ray will be a sufficient diversion to stop Eva from interfering with their lives. However, after a rocky beginning, it is Eva’s very resolve and intelligence which seduce Ray, and when their relationship blossoms the brothers-in-law find that the newly-content shrew poses an even greater problem than she did before.
Deliver Us From Eva is an African-American Shakespearean film adaptation, and Hardwick stated that one of his greatest motivations in making the movie was ‘to see Eva on screen. [He had] never seen a woman, much less a black woman, like her in a movie’, and in Eva’s sharp-tongued, witty exchanges the shrew appears less and less like an irritating scold and more and more like an empowered hyper-achiever. Indeed, not only is Eva herself a powerful female character, but her three sisters, Kareenah (Essence Atkins), Bethany (Robinne Lee), and Jacqui (Meagan Good) are likewise outspoken and forthright, allowing this adaptation to suggest that a modern incarnation of shrewishness may actually be more shrewd than shrew.
Dr. Emma Annette Wilson
For those of you who came to see The Tempest last night, thanks so much for supporting what we do! Now, take a deep breath. Release it. That’s about how much time you have before our next offering: the 1962 film West Side Story at the Bama Theatre, Monday, January 19th at 7:30pm.
Here are the program notes for the film, courtesy of Dr. Emma Wilson. Hope to see you there!
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
The story of Romeo and Juliet was already an example of cross-cultural adaptation when Shakespeare took up the gauntlet and created a Protestant stage version of a tragic romance between ill-fated lovers from Catholic continental Europe. There are more sources competing to be Romeo and Juliet’s origin story than there are factions and brawls in Shakespeare’s play, ranging from an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello from the 1550s to a French version by lawyer Pierre Boaistuau. While it is uncertain which, if any, of these texts Shakespeare knew in their original languages, he certainly drew on the first English-language iteration of this story, The Tragical Fate of Romeus and Juliet penned by Protestant militant Arthur Brooke in 1562. Brooke’s attempts to aid the Protestant cause in the French wars of religion were thwarted when he died in a shipwreck in 1563, but in bequeathing Romeus and Juliet to us, not only did he spare us from the joys of John Madden’s spectral Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter from Shakespeare in Love (1998), but he enabled an almost complete English conquest of this tale. Two quarto printings of Romeo and Juliet survive from 1597 and 1599, in addition to its inclusion in the First Folio of 1623, and whilst diarist Samuel Pepys said “it is a play of itself the worst I ever heard in my life”, history has sided with Samuel Johnson as the arbiter of taste when he declared that this is one of Shakespeare’s “most pleasing plays”.
The infamous story of star-crossed lovers from rival Italian families scarcely needs retelling here. From their first chance encounter at a dance to their final reunion in a shared tomb, Romeo and Juliet challenged classical ideas of what it meant to write a tragic play. By giving us not one but two forceful protagonists, who are then subject not exclusively to a series of inevitable and fatal steps, but rather to the more fickle hand of fortune, which delivers a letter too late, Shakespeare reconceptualised tragic procedure for his audience. In so doing, he inspired a slew of subsequent adaptations of this story, each of which would explore the frequently depressing consequences of different types of rivalry and factious behaviors. The 1961 film version of West Side Story clearly speaks to the cross-cultural origins of this narrative, bringing a Shakespearean perspective to cultural and national issues which remain troubling today, including racial tensions and urban discontent. Through these kinds of adaptations, we can think about the ways in which, in the 1590s, Shakespeare was writing a very modern tragedy.
West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise (1961)
Winner of the 1962 Academy Award for best picture, in addition to 9 other Oscars including 2 acting awards, and recognition for direction, color cinematography and art direction, costuming, editing, and sound, the film version of Broadway musical West Side Story was rewarded on all fronts on its release. Furthermore, its originator Jerome Robbins was the recipient of a Special Award from the Academy for his choreography of this Shakespearean adaptation. Yet whilst these accolades recognize the translation of West Side Story from Broadway to Hollywood, they do not engage with the other pivotal stage heritage of this film, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. So what was it, in 1961, that made Romeo and Juliet want to be in America? High society of sixteenth-century Verona seems a world apart from 1950s New York City. However, both settings are perturbed by the same key issues of distrust creating bitter divisions between rival factions, with tragic consequences for their young people. Waves of post-war immigration escalated tensions among urban neighborhoods, meaning that 50 years on from the placement of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet at the feet of the statue of Liberty, praising America’s open “golden door”, immigrants were experiencing a much more mixed reaction to their arrival in the Big Apple, ranging from wariness to outright hostility. West Side Story adapts Shakespeare’s rival noble Montagues and Capulets to dramatize these challenges via the established migrant gang the Jets and the newly-arrived Puerto-Rican gang the Sharks in New York City.
Shakespeare’s tale and West Side Story rely upon contrasting the happiness which the young star-crossed lovers experience together, from their first forbidden encounter at a dance to balcony serenades, with their ultimate tragic demise. Through enduringly joyous lyrics such as “America” and “I feel pretty”, Puerto-Rican Maria (Natalie Wood) of the Shark clan, and the audience with her, fall in love not only with Tony (Richard Beymer) of the rival Jet gang, but also with the American dream. However, following the fatal consequences of the ultimate showdown between the Sharks and Jets, the giddiness of the opening scenes evaporates as Maria states, “I can kill, too, because now I have hate”. In so saying, she probes some of the central questions which this Shakespearean adaptation raises: were these events inevitable? Did a chance meeting at a dance really let fly a tragic volley? Or is this a case of “chopt logic” which could have been averted through greater tolerance? In raising these issues, West Side Story allows us to explore afresh what constitutes a tragedy today.
~ Dr. Emma Annette Wilson.
Shakespeare on Film, 2014-15
September 15_____________ Ten Things I Hate About You
November 4______________________ The Bad Sleep Well
November 23________________ Shakespeare Behind Bars
December 16_____________________ To Be Or Not to Be
January 19__________________________ West Side Story
February 16____________________ Deliver Us From Eva
March 11_________________________ Forbidden Planet
April 27_______________________ Love’s Labour’s Lost
Sponsored by: The Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
All films are free and open to the public.
This year the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies begins a Shakespeare on Film series at the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa. All films are free and open to the public. We’ve scheduled a range of films, some you’ve no doubt seen and loved, others you’ve not. Next up is To Be or Not to Be, a serious comedy starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, shot during World War II. Please enjoy for the first time or again! And please let your students know about this series!!!
Here is the remaining line-up:
* December 16, 2014: Strode Film Series – To Be Or Not to Be
* January 19, 2015: Strode Film Series – West Side Story
* February 16, 2015: Strode Film Series – Deliver Us From Eva
* March 11, 2015: Strode Film Series – Forbidden Planet
* April 27, 2015: Strode Film Series – Love’s Labour’s Lost
Brett Chatham’s program notes for this film are included below.
Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Any discussion of To Be or Not to Be must consider the comedy within its historical context. The film began production in the fall of 1941, wrapped a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and began showing in theaters in the spring of 1942. The official position of the United States had changed dramatically since the film’s conception, but Lubitsch and his cast and crew defended their work. Contemporary critics, however, were quite offended—and understandably so. The film made light of a most serious threat; in the thick of World War II, American audiences were hardly ready to laugh at any zany Nazis. Even several generations removed, we may still find some of the films famous lines in bad taste. For example, a recurring gag—“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt?!”—seems especially uneasy in light of what we now know of the Holocaust’s horrors. (At the time, the Allies knew almost nothing of Hitler’s death camps.) Yet we laugh at the speakers’ uneasiness rather than our own; both the real and the fake Colonel Ehrhardts carry on conversations worse than they carry out orders. Similarly, the line that most offended audiences then—“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland”—was only meant to deflate “that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura.” Lubitsch certainly understood the implications of such provocative jokes but contended he never meant to dismiss or minimize the Nazi invasion of Poland: “What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology.” The film encourages us to be ever vigilant against man’s capacity for evil but careful not to give such “ridiculous” ideas too much credibility in themselves. When we retreat from ridiculing our enemies, we empower them. As a Jewish German-American émigré, Lubitsch had a more personal connection than most to the events unfolding in Europe, but he understood the war effort required fighting off the field as well on. And he could give the enemy quite a beating with his vaudevillian shtick.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (~1600) and The Merchant of Venice (~1597)
To Be or Not to Be takes its title from the best-known soliloquy in Shakespeare. Indeed, that first line is so associated with its author that its very utterance elicits more thought of theatricality than mortality. Here, as he contemplates being and nothingness, Hamlet appears to be thinking aloud to himself, but privy to those thoughts are King Claudius and his counselor Polonius, both hiding onstage. The audience knows this, and perhaps the Prince does as well. Hamlet seems ever aware of his role as an actor—at the Danish court and even, self-referentially, on the English stage. As such, “To be or not to be” explores not only existence but artifice, appearance, acting. Shakespeare wrote several plays about his art, particularly concerned with how the theater both reflects and affects life. (Consider Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, the aptly named The Mousetrap, in which the Prince hopes to catch the King’s conscience by staging the King’s crime.) Hamlet must act to save his own life, avenge his father’s, and end his usurping uncle’s, but he is much better suited to soliloquizing. To Be or Not to Be features actors who transform the European theater of World War II into an improvisational black farce, impersonating Nazis to save the Polish underground. In the film, the titular speech signals romantic rendezvous, arranged by a star actress while her “Hamlet” husband is occupied onstage, but another Shakespearean monologue, delivered on three separate occasions by a mere “spear-carrier,” actually plays a more prominent part in the plot: Shylock’s so-called Rialto speech—“Hath not a Jew eyes?”—from The Merchant of Venice. This more poignant speech signals changes in how the Polish actors view their relationships to one another and to their foreign occupiers. The troupe must identify with the enemy well enough to fool them. Merchant examines similar tensions of identification. Though Merchant is much less about theatricality than Hamlet, the earlier play’s themes still resonate strongly in the film, pointedly so considering the anti-Semitism of both settings, places hostile to their displaced populace. Ultimately, the question becomes whether to belong or not to belong.
Also, if you missed The Bad Sleep Well last week, you can find Brett Chatham’s program notes here:
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (~1600)
Despite its reputation among Shakespeareans, The Bad Sleep Well is not “Kurosawa’s Hamlet.” To clarify, the Japanese film does not merely set the play’s plot against the backdrop of a corrupt corporate culture. Several adaptations of the English play are just that and little more (see, for example, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film), but Hamlet has more than proven its richness as a source of artistic inspiration. Of course, the Bard borrowed most of his plots; his audience was likely familiar with the cry “Hamlet, revenge!” before ever seeing Shakespeare’s Ghost on the Globe stage. Revenge tragedies dominated Elizabethan stages and pages, and generic conventions—such as murder, usurpation, and the supernatural—certainly perpetuated the popularity of Shakespeare’s play early on. But as Western culture began to focus more on the individual and interiority, directors still found Hamlet easily adaptable to the zeitgeist. From Germany to Russia to Japan, cultures quite different from Shakespeare’s England have interpreted the Prince of Denmark as a man who speaks and thinks for them as well. The role’s versatility helps explain its universality, and in a way, Shakespeare’s play has become everyone’s. Consider as well Kurosawa has acknowledged his admiration for Shakespeare generally and Hamlet specifically on several occasions—though he never mentioned it as an inspiration for The Bad Sleep Well. So, while we can claim Kurosawa does not, strictly speaking, adapt the play in his film, we can hardly deny he appropriates many of the play’s themes to serve his own story of madness, suicide, and especially, revenge.
Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Laurence Olivier famously introduced his 1948 film adaptation of Hamlet as “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”; Kurosawa’s hero, Nishi, is not that man. Throughout the play, Hamlet wavers between killing his uncle and killing himself, revenge or suicide. Nishi, however, commits to his plan, avenging his father’s coerced suicide, long before the action of the film even begins. The Bad Sleep Well begins with an accusatory wedding cake and ends with an ominous phone call, and in every scene between the two, the film upsets the expectations of any audience who presumes to know how “Kurosawa’s Hamlet” should play out. Parallels to the play abound, but they are so intricately woven into this tightly knit noir that teasing out each strand would prematurely unravel many of the film’s mysteries. Film critic Chuck Stephens calls The Bad Sleep Well a “gray flannel ghost story in which the living haunt the dead,” and so, we may expect uncanny film noir. Shakespearean Kaori Ashizu claims the film is about “the ways in which an extraordinary mixing of feudal and modern attitudes empowers corruption,” and so, we may expect a sociological analysis of postwar Japan. Kurosawa himself said he wanted to expose those who “hide behind the facade of some great organization like a company or a corporation—and consequently no one ever really knows how dreadful they are, what awful things they do.” And so, we may expect fictionalized investigative journalism. And although no one above mentions the play, we can readily read references to Hamlet in each comment. The more we try to think about the film and the play separately, the more we dwell on their relationship. Should we view the film as commenting on the play’s themes or vice versa? The answer, quite clearly, is yes.