Category Archives: Other Reviews

Popular Adaptation – relax, it’s ok

While I can see big problems with films like Troy, 300 and Gladiator, I can’t honestly say that historical or mythological accuracy is one of them. Those who scorn such films usually have exactly the same argument: Troy is nothing like the Iliad, and 300 and Gladiator are full of historical inaccuracies – everything from the exact events to the military techniques used and the ordering of Maximus’ three names. I’ve met people who studied classics at university and have to make all kinds of excuses to themselves before going to see such films. I honestly don’t think these inaccuracies are a problem.

Troy is a film in its own right. There are a lot of problems with it, many of them in the form of Orlando Bloom, but its vast differences from the Iliad are unimportant. The Iliad has a lot of stylistic features that make an accurate film adaptation a near impossibility. Practically nothing happens during books 2-15 and much of what they are there for – giving a gruesome impression of the slaughter of the Trojan Wars – is achieved by several short battle sequences in the film. The Iliad is a two-layered story in which the events of the Trojan Wars are merely the playground setting for the puppeteering of the gods – all the major events of the Iliad are fated to happen and the main characters are aware of this before they occur. This quite simply wouldn’t work in a modern film. We live with the legacy of centuries of humanism that completely contradicts such a deterministic, entirely god-focussed viewpoint. Modern narratives often depend on the viewer/reader not knowing what happens at the end, and modern writers take huge interest in playing out and demonstrating the vast consequences of small decisions made (with free will) by their characters. Fate-based narratives would not please modern cinema-goers. It’s difficult enough to read the Iliad even with a fair understanding of pre-humanistic thought and the conventions of ancient writing – to a modern mind, the fact that the whole plot is predetermined removes half the appeal, and, to be brutally honest, makes it difficult to care. Modern film cannot be expected to accurately recreate this, absolutely central, aspect of the Iliad. Being “true to the original” would in the Iliad’s case be artistically and commercially suicidal.

Being true to the original not only is impractical in some cases but has little history of overwhelming artistic success. What those who sneer at popular adaptation of old stories seem to forget is that arguably the two most important writers of western history, Ovid and Shakespeare, were masters of exactly the same craft. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the source of huge numbers of the Greek myths and legends we know today. He did not invent them, he adapted them and put them together in weird and wonderful ways: he was the first to join the stories of Echo and Narcissus together for example. The result was a fifteen-book work of unidentifiable genre and style that became a handbook of mythology and the source of almost every retelling since. It is in the nature of these stories that they change over time. Look at a copy of Robert Graves’ complete Greek Myths and you’ll find that each story has several different versions, and the footnotes to each story are enormously complex due to the maze of different sources for each one. The great writers of history were not creators, they were adapters.

The same holds true of Shakespeare. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays, including all his best known works – Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream etc. – are based on earlier versions of the same stories. They differ hugely from their originals, for example Hamlet is a tale about a man struggling to commit murder because of the lack of proof and the enormous philosophical questions involved in such an act, rather than because he’s too young to do it (the point of the original Danish story). Shakespeare changed stories so that he could make them about what ideas he wanted to explore. This was a large part of his genius. Like Ovid’s, Shakespeare’s versions of the stories are the ones we remember, because they are the best and most influential retellings. Shakespeare was an innovator not of stories, but of style – he wrote plays in a way that had never been done before, and he told old stories in a way they had never been told before.

The question of “popular” writing also comes up here. Critics of such films as Troy point to the popular focus of the films, identifying literary classics as the real deal, but scorning such films as unintellectual and made for the common people, not the intelligent viewer. Again, it must be pointed out that Ovid and Shakespeare were popular writers. The common man read and enjoyed Ovid’s tales because they were fun, entertaining, and subversive. The upright, intellectual, proper people read Virgil, who’s Aeneid, while famous, has never had the same cultural impact as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day (in a time when theatre was enormously popular in London, the equivalent of film) and his success is down to him writing to please, rather than writing to satisfy the intellectual needs of the elite.

I am not saying that Troy is the new Shakespeare. There are a lot of stylistic issues with it as I have said, ones that would make Shakespeare spin in his grave. What I am saying is that where films like these need to improve is in their writing, in their acting, and in other stylistic areas, and to criticise them for their lack of truth to the original legend or their lack of historical accuracy is not constructive and goes against the truth of literary history. My problem with the sudden arrival of biologically impossible fantasy creatures in 300 is the sudden and awkward change of genre it caused in what had up till then been a simple historical epic with no fantasy element, not the fact that there is no record of such creatures in Xerxes’ army. My problem with the vast changes to the character of Agamemnon in Troy is that I personally think it makes the relationship between him and Achilles less interesting, not the fact that it is different to the original myth. We call them adaptations for a reason. I have no problem with criticising an adaptation for stylistic reasons, but it does not matter if Hollywood has a different take on a very old story that has in any case changed beyond recognition since it’s original telling.

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A note on modernisation – stop it.

Over the course of the last couple of years, I have seen several productions of Shakespeare: 1 in the Globe, 3 in the Swan, 1 in the National, 1 in Trafalgar Studios, 1 in Riverside Studios, 1 in the Minack and 1 on film. Out of these 9 productions, 7 were modernisations and I can say with confidence that I enjoyed the other 2 most out of the lot. This is not a case of better plays happening to be the ones done in Jacobethan costume: Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are hardly considered Shakespeare’s prime masterworks. Location doesn’t seem to be the key element either: Hamlet and Antony & Cleopatra at the Swan (the same location and theatre company as Richard III), Macbeth at Trafalgar and Troilus & Cressida at Riverside were all dreadful.

It seems to me that modernisation is one of the key factors here. Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Iago (at the National), James McAvoy’s Macbeth (at Trafalgar) and David Tennant’s Hamlet (on film) were exquisite. What marred their exceptional performances was Kinnear having to type away at a laptop while protesting to Othello that he wasn’t keeping anything from him, McAvoy conversing with witches in gasmasks in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, and Tennant wrenching a security camera off the wall before declaring ‘Now I’m alone’ with a great emphasis on the first word that doesn’t come across at all in the script (and indeed Ophelia reassuring her brother of the safety of her relationship with Hamlet by showing him the condoms she was keeping in her suitcase). What didn’t do any harm at all to the Swan Theatre’s Richard III was the fantastically choreographed battle scene at the end, full of the deafening clash of swords rather than the chatter of AK-47s.

However hard these directors try to tie up all the loose ends that inevitably result from trying to modernise such period pieces as Shakespeare’s plays (paradoxically despite almost all being set in times and places besides Jacobethan England) undoubtedly are, they invariably fail. In an interview about the National Theatre’s 2013 production of Othello, the director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, admitted that according to their military advisor (for modernisation to 21st century warfare in the Middle East), the idea of Desdemona accompanying her husband to a campaign was simply impossible, rather than merely frowned upon as an Jacobean production would have conveyed. The BBC’s Hamlet makes quite a point of highlighting the supernatural state of the ghost of Hamlet Senior by showing that no image of him appears on the CCTV cameras, but far from recreating the shock factor of Dracula not appearing in mirrors (as it seems to me was intended by the director) this cunning detail only served to highlight the ludicrousness of a clearly 21st century cast of characters being so quick to accept the existence of ghosts (along with many popular Jacobean ideas about ghostly ways, such as the ghost’s inability to speak until spoken to). Like them or loathe them, modern vampire and ghost movies by contrast usually take at least half an hour for the common mortal protagonist to process the existence of such entities, a far more plausible reaction.

It must be noted that there is a spectrum of implausibility and difficulty caused by these modernisations. Some, such as the above, are questionable, but avoid downright stupidity. Tarell McCraney’s decision to set Antony & Cleopatra in the Haitian Revolution, featuring the Romans in ridiculous Napoleonic outfits, a Cleopatra who pronounced the name of her servant ‘Char-me-en’ (thus destroying Shakespeare’s carefully constructed meter) and thoroughly inappropriate bursts of calypso music, together with the Wooster Group’s modernisation of Troilus & Cressida to the colonisation of America, featuring native Americans for some reason unbeknownst to the audience timing their every movement on stage to TV screens around the room showing footage of Inuits having sex (I am not joking), makes Hytner’s transgression seem minimal, but the point still stands:

Watching Shakespeare in the modern age is demanding enough. Attention spans are quite simply not what they were. Widespread groans were heard when Peter Jackson compressed Tolkein’s The Return of the King into a little over three hours. Three hours is the minimum to be expected from an uncut Shakespearean tragedy. Then there is the language barrier of Jacobethan English, predominantly in the still less intelligible syntax of verse, and on top of this the low-tech nature of Shakespearean theatre, which makes its mark on text written in a time of little to no special effects, where grand-scale fight scenes were completely out of the question, and everything depended on dialogue (indeed most of the stage directions found in modern editions of Shakespeare’s plays were added later, deduced from clues in the characters’ speeches, and are still debated). A Shakespearean play, at at least one and half times the length of a standard motion picture, in a semi-foreign language without subtitles, featuring hardly any bangs and whistles, is a strain on the modern viewer, there’s no getting away from that. Adding yet another layer of suspension of disbelief in the form of the crude (without exception) modernisations directors are twisting these plays into does nothing to improve the spectator’ chances of being engaged. For a small theatre company on a tight budget, I can understand that perhaps a modernisation is the only possible option, but some of these modernisations are so elaborate (and all the more convoluted for that) that I am hard pressed to grant them this excuse, and there is no excuse at all for companies with the budget of the National Theatre.

I can say without any exaggeration that of all the modernised productions I have been to, every one of them suffered for their modernisation, and not one of them benefitted to the extent of making up for it. Exquisite though Kinnear, McAvoy and Tennant certainly were, their productions let them down, and in the case of a production like the Wooster Group’s Troilus & Cressida, devoid of both intelligent setting choice and skilful acting, I am proud to say that I walked out during the interval.

In the end, what is the point of modernisation, especially for a wealthy theatre company? Othello is a play about race – setting it in the present day undermines its message. Macbeth is inextricably linked to the political context of the Stuart succession and James I’s interest in demonology. Hamlet was written three centuries before the invention of CCTV and condoms – Shakespeare had nothing of the sort in mind when he wrote Hamlet and Ophelia’s lines. Shakespeare was the greatest writer the English language, if not global literature, has ever seen. If he did not intend his words to be given a particular meaning, I don’t want to know anything about it. His words may be timeless, but that doesn’t mean that they can be twisted to apply to specific 21st century innovations no man, however devastatingly intelligent, could have foreseen.

Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” – everything a modern play should be

I must confess, I may have a vested interest on this one: I saw this play in a production starring a friend as the lead. However, I think I can say fairly objectively that not only his performance but the play itself was staggering.

It’s a recipe for an unusual night out: 17-year-old Alan Strang has blinded six horses with a metal spike, and the audience must follow psychiatrist Martin Dysart’s attempts to understand and help him. What this premise does not prepare you for is the masterwork that is Shaffer’s psychological exploration of religion and sexuality. The journey of Alan’s life, recollected piece by piece as he slowly grows to trust Dysart, startlingly reveals the agony and passion of faith and sex in the modern, ‘enlightened’ and above all uncertain world of today; it is as accurate to now as it was to the 1970s.

Equus is a play that reminds us why some clichés became clichés. Philosophical ideas communicated through a story of the unravelling of a troubled mind and its troubled history is a format that has been overdone. Narrative examination of a character’s influences and personal history to explain their crime, framed within a psychiatric setting, has likewise been employed far too many times. But in Equus it all hangs together perfectly. It might be a frame narrative within a frame narrative, but only this structure enables Shaffer to fully explore the viewpoints of the various different characters. And fundamentally, the troubled history of the mind can indeed be moving, devastating and catastrophic, and in Equus Shaffer shows us this without being cheesy or over the top.

The strongest criticism I can make of this play is that it is somewhat inaccessible in parts, since all but one of the characters are difficult to like or understand. However, that is as it should be. Dysart’s pretentions, Jill’s quirks, Mr Strang’s hypocrisy and Mrs Strang’s selfishness are all crucial to the relationships they have with Alan, and in the end the audience need only understand him and his experiences, something Shaffer ensures we do.

A secularist society, politically, religiously and sexually open-minded to a degree unthinkable for most of history, while of course desirable, brings its own difficulties. The modern teenager, faced with wildly conflicting influences and censorships, but not unswervingly forced in one straight line, must rewrite the rulebook for him or herself. We are not only entitled to our views, we are socially required to have them, to select them, mould them or invent them entirely.

Alan Strang’s story is an extreme, but horribly plausible, example of a plight I fear many will find themselves in. Faced with a thousand different political debates and affiliations, a thousands religions and philosophies and a thousand possible sexualities, with everything from John Donne’s sadomasochistic addresses to God to vicious homophobia and political extremism readily available online, we find ourselves in turmoil perhaps even more than Alan. Alan’s passion, in every sense of the word, is a shockingly revealing portrayal of a torturous issue.