Old Globe Presents Summer Shakespeare Films
Cinema Junkie / June 29, 2015
It’s summer so that means Shakespeare takes the stage at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. But for its 80th anniversary, the Globe is adding a twist to the Summer Shakespeare season — films.
Beth Accomando: Let’s talk about the summer Shakespeare film. This is something new for the globe. So, what inspired you to run Shakespeare on film this summer?
Barry Edelstein: Well, all of the institutions in Balboa Park has been spending a lot of time thinking about ways to mark the Centennial of the California Pacific Exposition. So we programmed this season of celebratory Shakespeare on our stages and I thought, I wonder if there are some other things that we can do for the community? And well, why don’t we just offer some free movie screenings of great Shakespeare films? As you know, Beth, there are 30 or 40 quite wonderful film adaptations of Shakespeare and there are 15 or so true masterpieces of cinema. It’s something I love to do is go Shakespeare movies, watch out people, or adapting the place to this completely other medium.
And so, I just went through the list of the Shakespeare movies that I really love and chose four of them, and I think it’s going to be a wonderful way for us to say, “Hey, San Diego, Shakespeare is really central to the life of this park and there a lot of different ways that we can engage with Shakespeare, and celebrate him, and this is one.”
Beth Accomando: The film that’s opening the series is going to be Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. What about that appealed to you?
Barry Edelstein: Well, that performance, Olivier’s performance as Henry V is one of the iconic Shakespeare performances of the 20th Century and maybe ever. Olivier was the giant of the first half of the 20th Century, made a bunch of Shakespeare movies, and this one really is his best. Richard III, a close second. He did a lear late in his life that’s also quite wonderful. His Hamlet of course, tremendously famous but none of them really equaled the complete, this heroic stature that he was so celebrated for on stage as Henry V does.
It’s also an interesting film and that it was largely, and even maybe entirely funded by the British Government. It was made in the middle of World War II. It was consciously conceived to rally the English people around the cause of defeating the Germans in the Second World War. And so, it emphasizes really completely at the expense of some of the nuances and fact to Shakespeare’s play the patriotic celebration of England as a warrior culture, and Henry V is this tremendously charismatic leader.
Henry V: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger. Steffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage.
Barry Edelstein: Olivier’s performance is just astonishing. You know, he’s got this voice that’s like a trumpet in its high registers, you know. He’s got this ability to rattle through the text with extreme speed but also utter clarity.
Henry V: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile. And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed there were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Barry Edelstein: And the other thing is he’s so dashing. I mean, handsome and romantic. And he somehow manages to just beguile you, and charm you, and sweep you away. It’s an amazing, amazing performance.
Beth Accomando: And also, of all his Shakespeare adaptations, this one seems the most cinematic in the sense of being able to open up the play well on film.
Barry Edelstein: I think that’s true. I think the Hamlet gives it a run for its money. This thing, he went into it specifically to find as much energy, and vividness, and color as he can. What’s interesting about the movie is that it starts out highly theatrically, you know, these painted drops and painted sets, and very, very artificial seaming, and gets more and more kind of realistic as the thing goes on, sweeping you into the fantasy of this English victory in a deeper and deeper way as every minute of the movie goes by. It’s a really wonderful achievement cinematically and as a piece of Shakespeare performance, you know, pretty much unmatched ever since.
Beth Accomando: You are also going to be showing Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight which is a brilliant film and what he’s done on this is really amazing and that’s he compacted multiple Shakespeare plays to just focus on the character Falstaff which he plays.
Barry Edelstein: This is a great, great, great film. A true masterpiece, ask most Shakespeareans what’s the great Shakespeare film of all times, they’ll tell you Chimes of Midnight. Ask film historians what’s the greatest Shakespeare film, they’ll tell you Chimes of Midnight. Ask film makers what’s the greatest battle scene ever filmed and they’ll tell you the Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes of Midnight. And ask Orson Welles what he thinks his greatest movie was and he said Chimes of Midnight. It is really genuinely a masterpiece.
Now, the Mercury Theater which was Welles’ theater company in New York did a condensation of the Falstaff plays in the 1930s, and the thing that Welles was amazing at and this is one of his many unheralded talents, he was a great cutter of Shakespeare, and you can read these scripts that he did, and as somebody who as part of my professional life cuts Shakespeare for modern performance, I look at what he’s doing and it’s just mindbogglingly smart.
Now, he’s able to take pieces of the play and essentialize them, and get rid of the fast, and just make the things go like bullets. So, he took Henry IV part one, Henry IV part two, and Henry V which are the three plays that deal with John Falstaff, and condensed them into one evening. And so, you get this sweep of all three of these plays in about 90 minutes, and you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. That’s how good and perceptive his sense of dramaturgy and dramatic structure is.
John Falstaff: How now. Who picked my pocket? Post desk. Post desk.
Female: Sir John.
John Falstaff: I fell asleep and had my pocket picked.
Female: You think I keep thieves in my house?
Barry Edelstein: The other thing is that it’s got one of his finest performances. He plays Falstaff. He’s already at the point in his life where he’s corpulent and enormously obese, and there are these wonderful shots that he does of Falstaff in armor, and he looks like this big tea kettle walking across this field, this sort of amazing funny, and grotesque, and exactly that way that Falstaff is, you know. Then, you’ve got John Gielgud playing King Henry and Keith Baxter playing Prince Hal, these amazing English classical actors.
And of course, that incredible famous battle scene that Spielberg openly said he copied for Saving Private Ryan, and that Branagh openly said he copied for his Henry V, and that Mel Gibson openly said he copied for Braveheart. Just this absolutely harrowing, amazing battle scene that really makes you understand what it must have been like in medieval warfare. Men covered in mud. Men scabbing each other in close quarters when wearing these suits of armor that were impossible to move around it. You know, it’s just incredibly fantastic.
Beth Accomando: I’m Beth Accomando and I’m speaking with Barry Edelstein, artistic director of the Old Globe Theater. Now, in adapting Shakespeare to film, a lot of filmmakers will get criticized for cutting the plays or cutting the text because it’s seen by some as being very sacred. What do you think Welles’ kind of – what do you think his gift was in terms of knowing what to cut and what not to cut, and how to make it cinematic?
Barry Edelstein: Peter Brooke is a great 20th Century English Shakespeare director has said famously that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing screenplays. And Brooke also said that the natural medium of the Shakespeare soliloquy is the film Close Up because in Close Up, you can get into the eyes in a way that reveals thought. And cinema does that. It’s able to tell extraordinary amounts of story and reveal incredible amounts of information with just a glance with an edit from one camera angle to another so you don’t need all that language, you know. Where Shakespeare has to have a character come out and say’ I’m terrified right now.” In the movies, all you have to do is put the camera up against somebody’s face and have them look scared. They don’t need to say the language, “I’m terrified now.” It’s a medium of images. It’s a medium if pictures.
And so, the language goes away. I, for one, don’t feel that that does any particular damage to Shakespeare. You still get in the case of all the films that we’re screening this summer an enormous amount of the language, and what falls away are the things that the medium of cinema can actually do better than what we’re able to do on stage. Take you immediately from indoors to out, show you a big battlefield instead of conjuring it in the imagination, and nobody does that better than Welles.
There’s a famous essay about Chimes of Midnight by Pauline Kael and she talks at length about Welles’ ability as a cutter. She also makes a really interesting point which is that the film production company was so broke that often they didn’t have sound equipment. And so, he would just pivot and say, “All right, well, today, we don’t have any sound equipment so I’m going to have to figure out how to shoot this scene with no text. And then, later, we’ll go to London,” or wherever he was, Madrid, these weird cities all over Europe, and then we’ll just fly somebody in and they’ll record a little voice over. So you see one of the interesting things particularly Gill Good’s performance, is he shot in long shots a lot of the time, and the reason is that they just didn’t have sound equipment on the days that they were shooting him. So they shot him in these incredibly long shots and then recorded him later and run the text as a kind of voice over, over these extraordinary pictures, amazing audacious crazy, crazy film.
Beth Accomando: You’re also showing something’s that’s much more contemporary which is Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and why did you choose this one?
Barry Edelstein: Well that’s also a film I really adore, I wanted to let the audience understand the range of approaches that people take to Shakespeare. I know if the series proves popular we’ll do more which will allow me to get into foreign language Shakespeare because actually of the top 10 Shakespeare films ever made maybe eight of them are in languages other than English, Kurosawa and Kozintsev, great European authors who made fantastic Shakespeare movies in their own languages. So I wanted to say to the audience you know here’s a really period authentic piece which is Henry the Fifth, and here’s this masterful interpretation of the Henry the Fourth plays also done in period, but here’s a real visionary taking the play and completely turning it on his head. And I love this Joss Whedon Much Ado it’s so funny and it’s so contemporary but the language is Shakespeare’s.
Male Speaker: Officers, what offence have these men done?
Male Speaker: Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover they have spoken untruths; secondarily they are slanders; sixth and lastly they have belied a lady; thirdly they have verified unjust things; and to conclude they are lying knaves.
Beth Accomando: And you have Nathan Fillion.
Barry Edelstein: Well it can’t be, yeah that’s true.
Beth Accomando: He was great. And you’re closing out with an adaptation not only an adaptation of Shakespeare to film but an adaptation of Shakespeare to musical which is west side story, and you’re showing it outdoors which seems very appropriate.
Barry Edelstein: I think that will be a lot of fun.
Beth Accomando: Tell me about west side story.
Barry Edelstein: Yeah well you know I'm hanging in by my finger nails I suppose to call it Shakespeare film but hey why not it’s Romeo and Juliet in its way, very clearly, consciously an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and just an unbelievably entertaining movie. So I thought why not that will be the end of the series, that will be the capper I thought that would just be fun and so why not?
Beth Accomando: Well and I think it shows how adaptable Shakespeare is, it’s still played very contemporary at that time people are very concerned about juvenile delinquency and street gangs. And even though it’s not Shakespeare’s language, the themes and the story lines seem to adapt perfectly well.
Barry Edelstein: That is and will always be the uncanny thing about Shakespeare; he always seems to have anticipated everything that happens in human society way before it actually happens. I mean here we are doing “Twelfth Night” which is a play about gender fluidity and that’s the conversation that the country is having at the moment because of Kaitlin Jenner. One never plans, how can you plan these thing and yet you listen to these conversations that the country’s having about what makes a man a man? And what makes a woman a woman? And how do those two things relate and are they ever interchangeable? And there Shakespeare talking about exactly that in his own particular strange language about a glove being turned inside out some Elizabethan image, that turns out to be an uncannily apt and exact image for precisely what the United States is talking about at the moment. And that’s why I love Shakespeare, that’s why I revere Shakespeare, and that’s why Shakespeare is a kind of philosophical and moral and even spiritual touchstone for me because there’s nothing that possibly could come up, that doesn’t have some correlate somewhere in these 900 pages; and I adore that and revere that about him.
Beth Accomando: I’m Beth Accomando and I’ve been speaking with Barry Edelstein of the Old Globe Theatre, thank you very much for talking to me.
Barry Edelstein: Thanks Beth.
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