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    Shakespeare for the Season

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    If attracted to innovative theatrical productions of William Shakespeare classics with top-flight talents this holiday season, one might take in Simon Russell Beale in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest in London, David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in Othello at Manhattan’s New York Theatre Workshop or the Q Brothers in the hot off-Broadway ticket Othello: The Remix, all of which are due to close within the next two weeks. Yuletide seasons past have often raised the curtain in cinemas on Shakespearean film adaptations as well: the Laurence Harvey/Susan Shentall Romeo and Juliet (1954); two versions of Othello, the Laurence Olivier/Frank Finlay matchup of 1965 and the Laurence Fishburne/Kenneth Branagh pairing of 1995; Roman Polanski’s vivid Macbeth (1971), Al Pacino’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004); and a couple of starry esemble Hamlets led by Mel Gibson (1990) and Branagh (1996). To the above honor roll, we add two more Christmas week theatrical openers, both visually stunning, boldly reconceived with dreamlike yet modernistic flourishes, terrifically cast and both thrillingly rendered on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays. Richard III (1995) and Titus (1999) share developmental roots as stage productions each five years prior to going before the camera. Under Richard Eyre’s direction, Ian McKellen played the murderous, misshapen but utterly insinuating Richard III in a 1990 Royal National Theatre production that swankly and stylishly reimagined the 1592 play in a 1930s-set fascist-leaning Britain that gleefully mixed tuxedos and ball gowns with Nazi-like symbolism. It toured to several countries, including the U.S., to great acclaim and was retooled and finally filmed by director Richard Loncraine (Bellman and True, Brimstone and Treacle, 5 Flights Up and the upcoming Finding Your Feet). McKellen was truly and monstrously at home in the period reset filmed on imposing and bleakly dystopian London landmark locations (The film justly captured Oscar® nominations for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration and Costume Design). “When you put this amazing old story in a believable modern setting, it will hopefully raise the hair on the back of your neck, and you won't be able to dismiss it as 'just a movie' or, indeed, as 'just old-fashioned Shakespeare,’” McKellen said. Also raising the temperature on this tale of political treachery and royal usurpation is the titanic ensemble cast: Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, Robert Downey Jr., Adrian Dunbar, Edward Hardwicke, Nigel Hawthorne, Bill Paterson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith and John Wood. Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King and the films Frida and Across the Universe) staged the 1593 Titus Andronicus at New York’s Theater for a New Audience in March 1994, and The New York Times’ David Richards wrote that she “stages the work as galloping Grand Guignol: nothing less, nothing more. She and her designers imagine Rome as both an antique and a modern city, populated by fur-clad Goths, Mussolini's thugs and a pair of skinheads whose throats are slit as they're hanging upside down by their boots.” Joined by her long-time partner and collaborator, composer Elliot Goldenthal, she chose Titus to make her screen directorial debut, casting the formidable Anthony Hopkins as the brutal Roman general whose return to Rome sets in motion a power play for imperial rule and Jessica Lange as the calculating Tamora, queen of the defeated Goths, a driven adversary whose bloodlust for revenge is unstoppable. As on stage, the carnage was mesmerizing, and the wizardly tools of cinema upped Taymor’s game, as did the capable supporting cast she assembled: Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, James Frain, Laura Fraser, Harry Lennix, Angus Macfayden, Geraldine McEwan, Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It too earned an Academy Award® nomination for Best Costume Design and the production, based at Rome’s legendary Cinecittà studios also took advantage of several historic monuments as locations. Both films – savage, nontraditional, wildly experimental – were neither the usual lighthearted holiday fare or substantial box-office performers, yet are gripping examples of how the Bard’s works can exert a spell across centuries and mediums. And they’re waiting in the wings to provide a stage-to-screen jolt of energy and imagination to the adventurous viewer on TT hi-def Blu-ray.