Monday, June 20, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Love's Labours Lost (BBC, 1981)

The Play: Love's Labours Lost

Directed by: Elijah Moshinsky (1981), for the BBC Series.

Genre & Setting: When we last saw Love's Labours Lost, it was in a decidedly idiosyncratic mashup with WWII-era imagery and song-and-dance numbers from the great American songbook.   No, really, it was!  Follow the link if you don't believe me!

This time around it is a decidedly more, hmm, sedate interpretation.  A romantic comedy, more or less, set at the court of Navarre, this version is filmed in and around somebody's expensive old house.

The Gist: The King of Navarre and three pals decide to spend three years pursuing the joys of scholarship, but subjecting themselves to disturbingly masochistic restrictions on food, sleep, and really anything except scholarship.  In particular, there is to be no sex.  Nasty punishments are prescribed for any women who even approach the palace.  But then, uh-oh, the Princess of France and her three hottest female courtiers arrive on a diplomatic mission, and our boys fall all over themselves pitching woo.  Interestingly -- and perhaps I should mention that I'm going to give away the ending later on in this sentence -- the play ends not as you would expect, with four couples hooking up, but with the French women telling the Navarrean (?) men that they have to spend a year in various forms of penance before there will be any smooching, or marriage, or whatever.

The Adaptation: This is yet another production from the BBC television series of the late 70s and early 80s.  As I put it last time, these adaptations have "very competent stage actors and utterly uninspired filming."  But let me put it another way this time.  These BBC productions suck.  I mean, they really suck.  They suck Suck SUCK SUCK SUCK!!!  I really can not believe how bad they are.  They are like watching a high school production of Shakespeare, except not at a big sophisticated high school, like you went to, that could actually pull off a school play.  No, I'm talking about a tiny little isolated rural high school like I went to, except maybe with a drama class.  Mind you, the actors are bona fide Shakespearean actors, but they are stage actors who are not used to playing for the camera -- and this is not something that someone like me would notice if it were not glaringly obvious.  Filming them as if they were screen actors just hangs them out to dry.

In the edition of these productions that I have been watching, there is a quote from the critical journal TV Guide on the back covers: "Shakespeare would be amused by the care, money, time and talent that are being lavished on the mammoth task of producing all 37 of his plays."  To which I say (beyond "learn how to use commas in a list, TV Guide") the word is not "amused."  The word is "appalled."  The time investment, I can't speak for.  Money?  The series clearly either had a laughably austere budget or somebody was doing some pretty lavish embezzling indeed.  I have been flattering this series in previous reviews by describing its "soap opera production values," but honestly I've never seen a soap opera with such a tatty, cheap, amateur look.  However much money was "lavished" on these productions, it was apparently not enough to create adaptations of the plays that were suitable for television broadcast.

Talent?  I don't know.  Perhaps Elijah Moshinsky is an incredibly talented guy.  But I would bet that anyone reading this little diatribe could have staged a filming of Love's Labours Lost better than he pulled off here.  For instance, in a play with three fairly equivalent major male characters and three fairly equivalent major female characters, it might have occurred to you, Gentle Reader, not to (a) cast actors who look broadly similar to each other, nor to (b) dress them in unremarkable clothing of an identical neutral shade, nor furthermore to (c) make that clothing the exact same shade as the walls which they are to be filmed against.  No, it is really that bad.  I do not recommend that you check it out to see for yourself, for this adaptation sucks.

Clocks In At: Two hours.

Pros: Honestly, these BBC productions completely drain the life and joy and energy out of the plays of Shakespeare.  It is particularly painful with the comedies, which are after all intended to be amusing.  I've tried to play along with them, but they are awful.  They make me a little sick and a little angry.  If all I'd ever seen was these adaptations, I would think that Shakespeare appreciation was some kind of elaborate cultural hoax on the part of, well, whoever.

Watching this series is the opposite of everything that watching Shakespeare should be.  Its adaptations fail to entertain, amuse, provoke, educate, or stimulate.  Having it be the standard go-to complete set of filmed Shakespeare is just a damn shame.  For real.  As in, as inheritors of the English-speaking tradition, we should all feel just a little bit ashamed that this is the best our civilization could do with our marquee dramatist.

But, I've heard that a few of them are slightly less bad.  Not that anyone has offered any specific examples.

Cons: It's very bad.

Prognosis: Clearly, this situation calls for a change of plans.  The idea of this project wasn't to develop an aversion to Shakespeare, after all, but to enjoy filmed adaptations of the plays while getting to know them a little better.  It's been the attempt at being comprehensive that drove me to so many of these BBC abominations, which are often the only filmed versions that the Multnomah County Public Library, an otherwise excellent institution, has on hand for the less well-known plays.

So here's a saner project.  Instead of proceeding masochistically from individual play to individual play, I'll actually start sampling from the selection of [non-BBC series] adaptations that are actually available to me.  This will focus more of my attention on the big-name plays, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Maybe I'll check out some opera or ballet adaptations!  Maybe I'll check out some of the various documentaries about Shakespeare!  Maybe I'll even READ a play or two.  But, in the absence of a specific recommendation from a trusted source, it will be a long while before I go back to any productions from the BBC series.  Because, gentle reader, they suck.  They really do.


The Calico Cat said...

Shakespeare appreciation was some kind of elaborate cultural hoax...

Yes, that about covers it.

BTW Everyone raved about David Tennant's (Dr. Who - you will meet him eventually if you keep up with that series as well) Hamlet (4.5 stars on Amazon) I so could not get into it & I "know" the play & love David's Doctor, but...

"A Hamlet of quicksilver intelligence, mimic vigour and wild humour" Guardian quote.

Again, I was not impressed.

Voron X said...

Wow! It sounds like you need to Watch Julie Taymor's "Titus" to feel clean again! Seriously, though, she managed to make the most violent Shakespeare movie utterly gorgeous. And with Anthony Hopkins how can you go wrong? It's totally artsy, mixing stylistic motifs from different eras, and I love love love it, but it might not be for everybody. Also stars Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming.

I also liked the Leonardo diCaprio/Claire Danes Romeo + Juliet. It preserves the original dialogue while updating the setting. Mercutio was fantastic.

I remember liking (back in high school) the Mel Gibson Hamlet, but to be honest, I haven't seen it recently and may not have been the most discerning critic, but we all know Helena Bonham Carter does crazy so well, and Mel Gibson, well, he actually *is* crazy.

Michael5000 said...

Calico: I've only once met a Hamlet I didn't like (the sillybuggers Lawrence Olivier version), but I've heard bad things about the David Tennant version!

Voron: LOVE Titus! Didn't much care for the diCaprio business, but I was in a theater full of yacking teenagers, so who knows. Am pro Mel Gibson's Hamlet, which, yes, I think of as Helena Bonham-Carter's Ophelia.

pfly said...

My dad is a (retired) English professor who specialized in Shakespeare. I know he knows a lot about which films of which plays are good. I'll ask him for some suggestions.