Shakespeare Behind Bars, and program notes for The Bad Sleep Well

The next Shakespeare Film at the Bama Theatre will be Shakespeare Behind Bars, which was postponed last month due to tornado warnings.Shakespeare Behind Bars

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.

~Brett Chatham

Shakesnews: Events for October 13th and 16th

The staged reading of Richard III was a great success, and I’ll have some audio posted from it later this week. First I have an announcement about two Shakepseare events happening next week.

Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Film Posters, Shakespeare Behind Bars copy

Hudson Strode’s next Shakespeare On Film offering will be Shakespeare Behind Bars, next Monday, October 13th, at 7:30pm at the Bama Theatre. Here’s what Ben Moran has to say about the film:

Shakespeare Behind Bars, directed by Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller (2005)

The Luther Luckett Correctional Complex might be the last place one would expect to find Shakespeare. A medium-security Kentucky prison surrounded by guard towers and razor-wire, it houses 1100 convicts, including murderers, rapists, and child molesters. Yet once a week, Curt Tofteland, program director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, visits this island of concrete and steel to help a group of inmates prepare a Shakespearean play. As part of their rehabilitative efforts, the members of this troupe spend a year with one text, rehearsing for a springtime production to be staged before their families and fellow inmates. For the year depicted in Shakespeare Behind Bars, the cast selects The Tempest as its play. Almost instantly, the prisoners begin unwittingly merging with the characters they perform. Between rehearsals, they play out their own anger and guilt, relaying, as Prospero does, their histories and the causes of their present conditions. Hal (Prospero) grapples with his troubled family history, sexuality, and role as a father, all while playing a different father on stage. Red (Miranda) initially rebels against his role; he bickers with his stage father during practice before recounting his own difficult upbringing. A beast of a man, Big G (Caliban) also must come to terms with his crime and the fact that he, like Caliban, has grown up in bondage. Each man has reason enough to remain angry at the world around him. Yet each holds onto the hope that somehow he can atone for his sins. Realizing they too are “such stuff / As dreams are made on,” bound to fade “like this insubstantial pageant,” the cast members desire the smallest of salvations. As Leonard (Antonio) articulates, they can only aspire to be remembered for something other than the worst things they have done. Staging Shakespeare does not resolve their problems, but by the time of their spring performance, the prison troupe gives us reason to believe that doing so has set their sole aspiration within reach.

~Ben Moran

Shakespeare and the First Folio


On Thursday, October 16th at 7:30pm at the Paul R. Jones art gallery, IF will hold its third Shakespeare in Performance workshop, Shakespeare’s First Folio: An Actor’s Tool, led by Nic Barilar. This hour-long workshop explores the creative and interpretative hints “hidden” in Shakespeare’s First Folio and how actors use these cues in performance. The workshop will include an introductory history of the Folio (the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623), a demonstration of some of the major differences between the Folio and modern editions of the plays, and, of course, explanations regarding how to use the text in performance. The evening will conclude with a brief exercise practicing the technique.