For nearly three decades, actor-director Kenneth Branagh has been bringing the Bard to the big screen. Kelli Marshall asks: has he earned the title of Shakespearean Auteur?

Auteurs are filmmakers whose personal influence and artistic control are so great that, despite the collaborative process of moviemaking, we recognize them as the authors of their films. Auteurs you may have heard of include Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

Henry V

Henry V

What about filmmakers who consistently work within the realm of Shakespeare? Can we consider, for example, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh masters of Shakespeare onscreen?

A recent issue of Shakespeare Quarterly takes on the first four directors, so let’s consider Kenneth Branagh – who has brought to screen, in some form or another, nearly 20 percent of Shakespeare’s works.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing

Branagh has directed film adaptations of Henry V (1989), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006). His 1995 film In The Bleak Midwinter (US title: A Midwinter’s Tale) features a struggling actor who strives to put on a production of Hamlet in a village church. Most recently, rumors have circulated that Martin Scorsese will produce a sort of documentary with Branagh as Macbeth.

Hamlet

Hamlet

Even Branagh’s non-Shakespearean ventures feature Shakespearean themes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) contains Hamlet’s existential ideas, a Titus Andronicus-like house of spare body parts, and echoes of Caliban as Robert De Niro’s monster laments onscreen: “Yes, I speak, and read, and think, and know the ways of man”.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Additionally, Branagh’s Hollywood blockbusters like Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2014) consist of, respectively, a flawed hero who must earn the right to be king and a fairy-tale world that Branagh has, in interviews, likened to The Winter’s Tale. Finally, also reaffirming Branagh’s association with cinematic Shakespeare are his turn as Iago in Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995) and as Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn (2011).

As You Like It

As You Like It

Another reason we can consider Branagh an auteur of Shakespeare onscreen is his loyalty to British Shakespeare actors and production team. This deliberate choice contributes not only to Branagh’s style, but also to the films’ seeming credibility. In other words, trained British actors “doing Shakespeare” are theoretically more palatable for many audiences than someone like Al Pacino, for example, whose American accent was ridiculed in his Richard III-based documentary, Looking for Richard (1996).

Othello

Othello

Like John Ford, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, Kenneth Branagh recycles collaborators. He consistentely employs Tim Harvey (production designer), Patrick Doyle (composer) and Roger Lanser (cinematographer) as well as core cast members like Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford and Richard Briers. Indeed, when these names appear onscreen, we know we’re getting a Branagh film.

That said, Branagh also stocks his films with multinational and multiracial casts. He knows that, in order for his Shakespeare adaptations to succeed in the US, American stars like Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Kevin Kline and Bryce Dallas Howard can help boost those box-office receipts.

In The Bleak Midwinter

In The Bleak Midwinter

Speaking of casting, Kenneth Branagh also repeatedly casts himself in his own adaptations. Like Spike Lee and Woody Allen, this makes him a director/auteur who unquestionably stamps his own personality onto his body of work. Aside from As You Like It, in which he appears only via voiceover, each of Branagh’s Shakespeare films stars Kenneth Branagh.

Moreover, as Jessica Maerz reminds readers in Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century, virtually all of Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations are based on previous theatrical productions in which he starred at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Renaissance Theatre Company. Again, this decision lends a sense of credibility to Branagh’s filmic work.

My Week With Marilyn

My Week With Marilyn

As a Shakespeare film director, Branagh mostly eschews early modern settings and costumes, a decision that reinforces his desire to bring Shakespeare to the masses. Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet offer audiences a vague notion of the past, and the Shepperton soundstage for Love’s Labour’s Lost has been described as being “decked out with walls, willows and punts to make a kind of ‘movie Oxbridge’.”

Only with As You Like It does Branagh give viewers a specific historical time and place: the film’s title card begins with: “In the latter part of the 19th century, Japan opened up for trade with the West”. For Branagh then, moving around Shakespeare physically and temporally makes it seem as though he, as the Washington Post once noted, is finally “blowing away the forbidding academic dust”.

Director Branagh with the stars of Thor

Director Branagh with the stars of Thor

Finally, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations (and many of his non-Shakespeare films) include rich mise-en-scenes and sweeping cinematography, both of which serve to illuminate Shakespeare’s poetry and prose.

Recall the lushness of color, texture, food, and costume within Branagh’s Much Ado and As You Like It, both visually romantic films. Even his Hamlet – with its wintry setting, the never-ending streams of gilded mirrors, and the hardened stone walls of Blenheim Palace – appear visually luxurious on a 30-foot screen, not to mention in 70mm (as it premiered).

Likewise, Branagh’s cinematographic choices – specifically sequence shots, or scenes that unfold in one long take, and Steadicam tracking shots that encircle characters – work with the flow of Shakespeare’s language. Perhaps the most memorable example of both of these stylistic choices is his four-minute tracking shot in Henry V, in which Branagh’s Prince Hal carries his dead luggage boy (Christian Bale) across the solider-strewn battlefield as ‘Non Nobis’ somberly plays on the soundtrack.

Cinderella

Cinderella

Like other filmmakers who’ve been labelled auteurs, Kenneth Branagh is drawn to distinct stories, themes and motifs. He commits to a core cast and crew (that often includes himself). He also refuses to set Shakespeare contemporaneously and possesses a passionate desire to bring Shakespeare’s language to the masses.

Finally, he boasts a signature directorial style and production aesthetic. But through it all, Kenneth Branagh almost always helps to shine a light on Shakespeare – and really, isn’t that what a master of Shakespeare onscreen should do?

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School present a revitalised production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Redgrave Theatre, full of humour, dance and music

[Images by Toby Farrow]

Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain this comic re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest amused and delighted the audience, showing off the talented Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates.

One of the tricky things about staging The Tempest is the play’s undertone of slapstick comedy, which at times jars with its more serious and magical elements. This BOVTS production at Clifton’s Redgrave Theatre decided to fully embrace the play’s comic and musical elements, updating them for 2016 with theatrical aplomb.

This was entirely fitting: by embracing the play’s more frivolous elements the production payed homage to the play’s rich afterlife, while seeking to enthral a new generation of Tempest-lovers.

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The farcical subplot was tackled by casting Stephano and Trinculo as wacky entertainers – swearing and coming out into the audience singing and clutching wine bottles. Jac Baylis played a camp Trinculo in white patent leather heels, matched by Tom Byrne’s comic and amped-up Stephano.

The pair’s jokes were provocative and cheeky, fully updated for their 2016 audience. But Shakespeare’s wordplay was never far – the comic explanation of the laboured ‘jerkin’ joke was clever, and reminded us of the original text’s aim to entertain.

In contrast, the play’s main plot stayed clear of these absurd elements –the lovers left to their innocent courtship, and Ariel, Prospero and Caliban locked in their eternal power struggle.

Danann McAleer was a gentle and wise Prospero, whereas Lily Donovan’s Miranda was full of emotion and youthful sensuality. Corey Montague-Sholay’s Ferdinand was young and playful, perfectly in sync with Miranda – childish squeals punctuating their lovers’ games.

Ariel (Dylan Wood) was eerie and his interactions with Prospero were profoundly moving, especially during the final ‘freeing’ scene. Ariel sang and moved beautifully, in contrast with Caliban (Josh Finan) who was a much earthier, boil-covered version of himself.

Caliban’s drunken antics with Stephano and Trinculo were funny, yet also poignant in his desperate enthusiasm for freedom. The spirited cast kept perfectly in time with Shakespeare’s tempo.

Tempest-12

The set design was simple and effective – suspended trees and a cloudy sky background representing the unspoilt nature of the isle. When the Neapolitan aristos arrived on the island, dressed in shiny shoes, suits and Ray-Bans, they looked wonderfully lost in this austere simplicity. Their masculine japes and peacock-like pruning were funny, but Gonzalo (Joey Akubeze) wasn’t as ridiculous as he is sometimes made out to be, cutting a more poignant, dignified figure here.

The island’s magic was threatening, weird and wonderful. Magic spirits were variously represented by hooded, chanting and dancing actors. The smallest of movements were used to create tension and suspense.

The magical masque commissioned by Prospero to celebrate Ferdinand’s and Miranda’s nuptials took a dark turn when it ended with a birth – Prospero rushing to the aid of the apparently lifeless ‘mother’ as Miranda cradled the ‘baby’. It was an interesting nod to Miranda’s absentee mother and her possible fate, perfectly timed at the cusp of Miranda’s marriage and burgeoning sexual maturity.

Canada’s literary superstar Margaret Atwood reveals the title and cover art of her upcoming Shakespeare-inspired novel

Distinguished Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has unveiled the evocative and Shakespearean title – Hag-Seed – of her new novel to her one million followers on Twitter.

Atwood’s Tweets also tease Hag-Seed’s striking cover art – which seems to depict the watchful eye of Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Hag-Seed is published in the UK by Hogarth on Thursday 6 October, 2016. The novel will publish simultaneously across the English-speaking world in print, digital and audio formats.

Hag-Seed UK Front
Hag-Seed
is a retelling of Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest, and is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

In Atwood’s take on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest with suitably dramatic consequences.

Margaret Atwood c. Liam Sharp
Image by Liam Sharp

“‘Hag-Seed’ is just one of many insults Prospero flings at Caliban in The Tempest,” says Hogarth’s Becky Hardie. “There’s a lot of Shakespearean swearing in this new Tempest adventure, too, but also a mischief, curiosity and vigour that’s entirely Atwood.”

The Hogarth Shakespeare series aims to continue Shakespeare’s own tradition of “retelling”, and to celebrate his legacy.

Hag-Seed UK front + back
The series launched with Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale) last October, followed by Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) this month.

Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew) follows in June, and then Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (The Tempest) arrives in October.

The first four novels will be followed by Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.

Go here for more on The Hogarth Shakespeare (UK).

Go here for more on The Hogarth Shakespeare (US).

Follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter @MargaretAtwood

Birmingham City University students create life-size effigies of Shakespeare and some of his most iconic characters

A life-size installation featuring more than a dozen of Shakespeare’s most famous creations – handcrafted from paper and cardboard – is open to the public, free of charge, at Birmingham City University.

Tamora Queen of the goths
Tamora, Queen of the Goths (from Titus Andronicus).

With scale models over six feet tall, a three-metre-high balcony and even a walk-in tavern, it has been made as a tribute to mark 400 years since the Bard’s death.

Each piece in the installation was individually crafted by 22 first year students from the University’s Design for Theatre, Performance and Events degree course.

Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet.

The students used techniques learned on the course to sculpt 780 metres of corrugated cardboard and nearly 5,000 metres of brown paper into the setting and characters.

Among the figures are a likeness of William Shakespeare himself, writing at his desk, and full size replicas of King Lear, Caliban, Richard III, and Romeo & Juliet.

Caliban
Caliban (from The Tempest).

The exhibition took nearly three weeks to create, with students working day and night to make each component from scratch, as well as selecting music and lighting to complement each element.

The installation is housed in the Shell space at the University’s Parkside Building. It is open to the public, with free admission, until Friday 26 February.

Balcony
Viola (from Twelfth Night).

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust helped students research the project. When the project ends, a number of characters and settings will be transported to Stratford-upon-Avon for display.

Shakespeare desk
Shakespeare at his desk.

The tavern in the installation is intended to replicate London’s historic Gorge (or “George”) Inn, sometimes referred to as “Shakespeare’s Local”.

Traditional Elizabethan music plays in the exhibition hall, while words from The Two Noble Kinsmen – thought to be Shakespeare’s final play – make a poignant tribute to the Bard.

Juliet
Juliet (from Romeo and Juliet).

“It’s very rare that you get an art installation that really looks at the times that Shakespeare was writing in,” says the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Marie Brennan.

“As well as looking at new interpretations of his own work. It’s really an unusual and creative concept to bring those two together into one installation.

Peter Quince
Peter Quince (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Titled “The Figure in Space – Shakespeare”, the exhibition is on until Friday 26 February at Birmingham City University: The Parkside Building, 5 Cardigan Street, Birmingham B4 7BD. Admission is free.

Go here for a map and directions.

Marooned boats in a magical woodland: Butterfly Theatre’s The Tempest at Bristol Shakespeare Festival 2015

Directed by Aileen Gonsalves, Butterfly Theatre’s production of The Tempest is a dynamic and exciting take on the play that benefits from its outdoor setting in Bristol’s Leigh Woods. It is one of the many innovative shows taking place this July as part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

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The performance starts deep in Leigh Woods, as singing actors in yellow mackintoshes beckon the audience to pass under a symbolic sea. After this energetic beginning, the audience enters local artist Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, comprising five fishing boats stranded in the woods. The Tempest’s themes of power, reconciliation and magic certainly resonate deeply here among the trees.

The cast of seven guide the audience through a promenade performance where maintaining the momentum is a key element. Prospero (Julian Protheroe) is masterful, surveying his island from a boat’s deck. His relationship with Miranda (Georgie Ashworth) is warm, and Miranda shrieks with appropriate girlishness when she falls for a wide-eyed and earnest Ferdinand (Owen Pullar).
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Ariel is played compellingly by Gail Sixsmith whose powerful movements convince. Caliban (Elliot Thomas) incites pity, but his raucous comic scenes with Trinculo (Matthew McPherson) and “Stephana” (Kate Ellis) excite much laughter amongst the audience.

Though truncated, the production remains faithful to the outlines of the play-text and makes good use of the boats for dramatic effect. The soundscape created by Jonnie Harrison is an interesting mix of drums, instrumental music and singing. And the effect of the music appearing as if from among the trees adds to the magical, slightly eerie atmosphere.
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A play like The Tempest benefits from the unusual outdoor setting, and Butterfly Theatre manage to keep the standing audience happy throughout as the drama and magic unfold amongst the boats.

All images by Elle de Burgh

The Tempest in Leigh Woods ran from 11-17 July.

To find out more about Bristol Shakespeare Festival, go here.

To find out more about Butterfly Theatre, go here.

To find out more about Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, go here.