Based on an original idea by William Shakespeare

Where once only Olivier dared to tread, now the big guns are lining up to make big movies from the Shakespearian canon. And they're doing surprisingly big box office. Coming soon to a cinema near you: McKellen's `Richard III', Branagh's `Hamlet', Nunn's `Twelfth Night' and Noble's `A Midsummer Night's Dream'
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Hollywood has discovered a promising new scriptwriter who doesn't demand mega-millions for a screenplay or throw artistic temper tantrums when his words are cut or meddled with. And his work not only guarantees an audience but attracts many of the world's leading actors for well below their usual scale of fee. Now that Hollywood's twigged that the Bard can be box office, everybody is getting in on the act.

Sir Ian McKellen's Richard III opens in Britain next week. Kenneth Branagh, who can currently be seen as Iago in Oliver Parker's film of Othello, is hard at work on Hamlet, which should premiere in the US in time to be considered for next year's Oscars. Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night, co- starring his wife Imogen Stubbs and Branagh's supposed inamorata Helena Bonham Carter, should also be ready in the autumn. Adrian Noble has adapted his Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for celluloid with the sultry Lindsay Duncan as Titania. Fiona Shaw is committing her Richard II, which she has performed successfully on stage, to film in a Deborah Warner production. Rising star Clare Daines is playing Juliet in a film about Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers directed by the Australian Baz Luhrmann of Strictly Ballroom fame - while Juliet turns into a cow in a mooted version (from Troma Films) complete with car crashes and explosions. Quentin Tarantino, director of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs is said to be planning a black-and-white version of Macbeth. Then there are all the Shakespeare-inspired spin-offs, from Branagh's own In The Bleak Midwinter, which plays on Hamlet, to Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (about a company rehearsing Richard III), Stephen Poliakoff's Food of Love, based on Twelfth Night, and Granada Films' The Dream.

"Money's at the bottom of it," says Professor Stanley Wells, Director of the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham, and co-editor of Shakespeare and the Moving Image. "They've discovered Shakespeare can be good box office, which is equally connected with the willingness of certain big box office draws to appear in Shakespeare."

But there is now more Shakespeare on the screen at any time since the golden age of the Forties and Fifties (see panel, right). Ian McKellen thinks the sudden surge of Hollywood Shakespeare is "basically because the BBC and ITV don't do Shakespeare any more. If the BBC had agreed to finance Richard III we'd have done it for television. But they didn't, so we had to go to the US for funding."

One of the strings usually attached to such backing is the stipulation that some big American box office names take part, and the film inevitably opens first in the US (in the autumn to be eligible for the next year's Oscars). For Richard III the American names were Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr, who were encouraged to keep their accents to play the social- climbing Queen Elizabeth as a kind of Wallis Simpson and her brother as someone who was "Earl" by name, not by title.

"Hollywood has discovered that they can do these prestigious Shakespeare projects for comparatively little, since people want to be in them," says McKellen, who waived his own fee for a year out of dedication to the project that has now, at 56, turned him into a Hollywood film star at last. Directed by Richard Loncraine, with McKellen adapting the screenplay from his Royal National Theatre performance directed by Richard Eyre, it cost a mere pounds 6 million. Branagh's forthcoming Hamlet has a budget of about pounds l2 million from the American company Castle Rock Films. Despite this he has managed to attract the likes of Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu and Ken Dodd in cameo roles, in addition to all-star principals such as Julie Christie and Derek Jacobi.

"Actors are often glad of the opportunity to work in a film like this for much less money than they might otherwise command - for all the old cliches, that they are very good parts," says Branagh. The parts attract Hollywood actors, and the Hollywood actors attract audiences who would not be seen dead (though perhaps snoring loudly) in a theatre. Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 Hamlet is more likely to have brought a whole new audience to Shakespeare than to its star, Mel Gibson. "There is now less feeling that these plays can be tackled only by English actors with an enormous amount of Shakespeare experience," says Professor Wells, "...that a Mel Gibson can be trusted with Hamlet, or a Laurence Fishburne with Othello." The scholarly Wells is not perturbed at the thought of a Pulp Macbeth from Quentin Tarantino. "There has been an alternative series of films for a long time, the most notable Derek Jarman's The Tempest with Toyah Wilcox as Miranda. But they have usually been on low budgets and `highbrow' in the sense that most avant-garde cinema tends to be."

What is different now is that Shakespeare is being made for the mass market, with one eye on the Oscars and another on the potentially vast video and CD-Rom market to follow. So the New Wave of Shakespeare films try to create a world that cinema audiences are already comfortable with, and that includes chase scenes, explosions, fights and gory deaths.

So McKellen's Richard III is a Fascist-style dictator in a 1930s Britain, who commits enough brutal killings to satisfy the most bloodthirsty fans of Natural Born Killers and Die Hard. The "chase" scene in which Richmond finally corners Richard (who cries "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse" when his armoured vehicle breaks down) on a burnt-out section of scaffolding near the Battersea Power Station would not disgrace Schwarzenegger and Stallone.

The new films are not "Shakespeare, Men In Tights", as Russell Jackson of the Shakespeare Institute (and production consultant on all Branagh's Shakespeare films) puts it. Most are set in the 19th century - like Branagh's Hamlet and Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night - "because the 19th century is a period which is romantically appealing but doesn't look like fancy dress".

The new Shakespeare films draw both upon the theatrical and cinematic traditions. Adrian Noble's Midsummer Night's Dream echoes Peter Brook's production in the 1960s - only a few minutes of which were filmed. "I think he is deliberately evoking memories of the Peter Brook production," says Professor Wells, "but often to play around with it in a post-structural way." Branagh's Hamlet makes use of the long, uninterrupted takes in Olivier's (although he hates the comparisons that are so frequently drawn between them).

But while the New Shakespearians may look back over one shoulder to the greats of the past, their biggest task remains captivating the audiences of the present. Kenneth Branagh (as he explains below) is prepared to make fewer concessions than most: his film will be the full, no-line-cut- or-rewritten version that will come in at a little under four hours; McKellen's Richard III is a brisk (one hour and 45 minutes), action-packed number, in which Shakespeare's lines are butchered as brutally as Richard knocks off his enemies.

Still, one wonders, on hearing Branagh grapple with lines like "I fingered their packet", whether McKellen's decision to chop unwieldy lines and modernise outdated ones might not have been wiser. He is confident Shakespeare would have thought so, but Branagh argues that he'd rather use Shakespeare's actual words since they, for him, seem to say it all too superbly to paraphrase.

But in the movies, Branagh is the exception. Mainstream theatre has long been boldly experimental with Shakespeare, as have "fringe" films. Now, at last, major film makers have discovered that they can have fun with Shakespeare and that he's very forgiving.

"Many film critics hardly ever go to the theatre," says McKellen, "and they don't realise that every year there are several Richard IIIs on stage which push the boundaries further. Now films are catching up, throwing caution to the wind and showing that you don't have to treat Shakespeare reverently to revere him."

Ian McKellen's `Richard III' is on release from next Friday


Kenneth Branagh: `Hamlet is the hub of his work. It's where plays go to and come from'

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, a 19th-century student prince in waistcoat and trousers instead of doublet and hose, inhabits a castle of grand mirrored halls and claustrophobic secret "closets".

The main marble hall with its 28 huge mirrors (each able subtly to swivel and tilt to avoid picking up cameras or crew) and 7,500 hand-marbled black and white tiles - more dazzling than the 103 black and white dalmatians filming next door for Disney - is part of one of the biggest film sets ever built in Britain. Two vast sound-stages at Shepperton Studios had to be dragged together, with monumental Blenheim Palace chosen for external shots of Elsinore.

"I wanted the outside to be terribly glamorous - like the 19th-century world of Hello! magazine - but to show that behind the facade people are drinking too much, gambling too much, doing dark deeds and spying at each other through hidden doors," Branagh explains during a rare moment when the actor/ director is not needed in one capacity or the other. "The mirrors are an image for people who are under the spotlight all the time and who are aware that everyone's watching them. We also place people in positions where they have to look at themselves.

"That's one of the more obvious things this play is about - the difficulty of having a personal life that has any degree of freedom when you have a very high public profile." A rueful smile flits across a face far gaunter than Branagh's fans have so far seen on him and he rubs the carefully trimmed goatee beard he has added as a counterpoint to the bleached blonde hair he, like Olivier before him (with whom he is weary of being compared), felt necessary for playing "the Dane".

He is clearly thinking of his own personal life, so recently under the media microscope after the painfully public disintegration of his marriage to Emma Thompson. Now he can empathise more then ever with his friend the Prince of Wales, whom he consulted before playing Henry V about what it was like to be a king-in-waiting.

"I explored this issue a bit in Henry V, and it's something I'm quite interested in," Branagh admits. "While I haven't asked the Prince of Wales specifically about this film, of course it's instructive to watch someone like that, whom I observe going through the process of being `the observed of all observers'."

Like Branagh himself? "Yes, sure," he acknowledges. "That's the kind of figure we're fascinated with, and the people in Hamlet are as fascinated as we are today with the lives of the royal family, and the gossip about the prince who should have got the job as King and who's `loved by the distracted multitude'. And then the queen marries again very quickly, and the prince seems to be going mad and they've just heard that the old Prime Minister, Polonius - John Major, if you like - has been murdered. It doesn't need much imagination to make it very pertinent today.''

So why not set it in today's world, rather than a 19th-century world with military overtones?

"By setting the play in the 19th century you can evoke the world of the Hapsburgs, a world where Europe's boundaries were constantly shifting and its fate was in the hands of a few families who as well as having all this political power were subject to internal argy-bargies." Royal families, he points out, have long been "dysfunctional", but in a Victorian era of model families there is more dramatic potential for it to shock.

Yet Branagh keeps emphasising that Hamlet is a play for today.

"It is an incredible observation of the lives of families, of sexual jealousy, filial love, parental love - and lack of communication. That's the big problem between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude. If they'd had a conversation about why she wanted to marry so quickly things might have been very different - it might never have happened." Although this play was written in a potboiler form of the time - a revenge melodrama - with all the usual elements of ghost, murder and someone going mad, Shakespeare happens to have endowed that form with an extraordinary debate about the nature of being a human being. On another level it's about what it is to be happy, and to find peace of mind."

Does Hamlet ever discover that - and has Branagh? "Yes, I think he does. But his tragedy is that he only finds some kind of peace with acceptance of his own imminent death." And himself? "Umm... well, working on this role over many years has been part of the process of doing that."

Throwing himself body and soul into this epic film of Hamlet - the first time anyone has attempted to film the whole thing, he points out - seems to have been just the tonic he needed during a difficult period in his personal life.

"It's not falling off a log for me to direct myself - whatever people may feel about the incipient megalomania it may represent," he insists. "It's very, very, very, very hard. But somehow I feel all the work I've done up to this point has been leading up to this."

Why has he chosen to do the whole play - with additions, even, to the full First Folio version? Surely it's been limiting, since he is committed to leaving not a single line on the cutting-room floor? "No, it's been challenging," Branagh emphasises. "Because it seemed there were so many instances to enhance the play. In Olivier's film there were no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no Fortinbras - and I think that's a great loss to Hamlet and to the play. I wanted to see how it affected other parts of the play if you do have Fortinbras present throughout as a sort of opportunist thug on the borders, ready to move in at the drop of a hat, so that you have the element of political, as well as personal, instability in the lives of the Royal family.

Won't it run well over four hours, longer, even, than Gone With the Wind? "No, we did it at the Barbican in three hours 50 minutes with two intervals," he shoots back. "I think this will be three and a half, with an intermission for people to buy Cokes and popcorn."

Branagh first became fascinated by Shakespeare when he saw Richard Chamberlain play Hamlet on television in 1972. "It was very good, I thought. Gielgud was the Ghost. Then I saw Derek Jacobi's Hamlet when I was about 15 and it just got into my system. I feel it's the hub of Shakespeare's work. It's where plays go to and come from. It may not necessarily be the greatest, although I think it has a strong claim to being, but somehow it's the heart."

`Hamlet' is released in the UK in early 1997


Trevor Nunn: `No one can do a great deal of

tampering with him and get away with it'

Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night should prove one of the cheapest of the current crop of Shakespeare films with a mere pounds 3m budget - a combination of British and American money. "Adrian Noble managed his entirely studio- based Midsummer Night's Dream on about pounds 2.5m," Nunn notes, "but we've attempted a piece of cinema shot on location with large-screen values and very small resources."

Twelfth Night, a co-operative venture between the American Fineline and the British Renaissance Films, was filmed in often cold and wet Cornwall with, as Nunn puts it, "a lot of privation". Nunn's pregnant wife, Imogen Stubbs (who recently gave birth to a son), was among a cast including Helena Bonham-Carter, Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Kingsley, Imelda Staunton and Mel Smith. He is pleased with his home-grown actors. "With a shared Britishness it was possible to locate the film - admittedly in the fictional Illyria. There is a far-reaching Englishness about the sense of humour which would be unwise to stifle."

Nunn boasts that as the transvestite Viola, Stubbs has to "ride like a man, fence like a man, play snooker and wrestle". Ask him how she managed in her condition and Nunn goes on the defensive, "Don't talk to me about nepotism." I wasn't - but swiftly steered the conversation to what seemed safer ground, his relationship with Shakespeare.

"No one should feel they can do a great deal of tampering with Shakespeare and get away with it for very long - he spins in his grave and causes a great deal of mischief," says the former Royal Shakespeare Company boss, now artistic-director-in-waiting of the Royal National Theatre.

So how much tampering has he done? "Well, if one sets out to make a film the most important thing to realise is that one isn't photographing a stage production - so the first thing one has to do is contract the text into a manageable length. When you look at the many texts of Hamlet, you see many playing versions - so you have to be careful about approaching these texts as if they are set in aspic. They are bits of working material and are meant to be elastic." As Nunn feels that "the Elizabethan device of soliloquy is problematic in the cinema" he has unceremoniously dumped them from his film. Isn't that enough to set Shakespeare spinning? "No," he says firmly.

"They are a device that roots the material in its stage background. I don't think there is that same relationship when the character begins to address the camera. Some use voice-over - as in Olivier's Hamlet - which I think is particularly unfortunate, because all the mental energy disappears if you don't see the thoughts becoming language. Yet Olivier was aware all those years ago that there was something inherently uncinematic about soliloquies."

Filming Hamlet without soliloquies, he hastens to add, would not be a good idea. "But I've reduced Viola's soliloquy material and have used different forms of expression: Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne) has `reverie'.

"When I'm working on a large stage with a Shakespeare text it becomes very important that it be both projected and rhythmically accurately presented, with a reliance on pentameter. But when I'm dealing with a small space in the theatre, different techniques are required, and Shakespeare becomes quite an astonishingly naturalistic playwright, with all sorts of suggestions of real speech rhythms. In filming Shakespeare I'm much more influenced by that small theatre work, and I think that Shakespeare can emerge as an extraordinarily juicy and real scriptwriter."

He has chosen to set his film in the 19th century not because his wife looks so good in breeches but because (as almost every director who makes that choice says) "the comic elements are so much to do with social hierarchy and class distinctions, which we can recognise in the 19th century. This play has a green baize door throughout that separates the aristocrats and the servants - `Art any more than a steward?' - and we know so much more about late 19th-century social detail than we do about Elizabethan."

But he also insists that this is a film that will explore very contemporary themes. "You've got this extraordinary crossover of gender in a story where a girl loses her twin brother and keeps him alive in her mind by becoming him - to survive. Then she experiences what it is to be a man in a man's world, and on the receiving end of female affections. I think Shakespeare is absolutely fascinated with the dividing line of gender - which every magazine and fashion designer is at the moment, because how we perceive gender is changing and shifting very fast."

This play explores almost "all permutations of gender attraction", Nunn notes, with men falling for women dressed as men (Orsino for Viola); women falling for women dressed as men (Olivia for Viola); men falling in love with men (Antonio with Sebastian) and men with women (Sir Toby Belch and Maria), and the phenomenon of self-love (Malvolio).

"By choosing to set the film in the 19th century we also get away from the Elizabeth silhouette of the boy in large breeches, padded doublet and ruffs - there is something either pantomimic or cherubic or feminine or safe about that idea of the Elizabethan boy. In our production you get the 19th-century boy - in this case like a cadet soldier in a highly military court, which I take from the text because Illyria is supposed to be in a state of war."

The final version of Twelfth Night will be subject to the mercy of American cinema preview audiences. "They will be asked to fill in cards offering opinions," he says, "and I hope and pray that they will like the way it's been put together."

If they don't, will he change anything - would he grant them a happy ending, with no "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" promise from Malvolio, and pave the way for a Twelfth Night II?

"I hope I won't have to."

`Twelfth Night' is currently in post-production


Adrian Noble: `Thanks to Tarantino, it's suddenly OK for characters on stage to deliver lengthy pieces'

Inside a Soho editing suite, Adrian Noble is putting the final flourishes to his first movie. "It's terribly inhibiting if someone else is here," he tells me. "It's like making love with someone else in the room," chips in Peter Hollywood, the film editor. Looking at it like that, I am infinitely more embarrassed then they are, but like a gooseberry, I cling on in.

They obligingly set to. As the film flips clankingly from spool to spool, Noble peers at the screen. The shot pans across a blissfully idealised moonlit attic bedroom, skimming the pop-up theatre, teddies and treasured ornaments until it alights on a golden-haired cutey (nine-year-old Osheen Jones in his screen debut) snuggled under an eiderdown. He has fallen asleep reading A Midsummer Night's Dream, blue-bound with gold-lettering and illustrated by Arthur Rackham (an important clue to the aesthetic from which Noble's film will take its cue). As the clock (a porcelain pierrot and Noble's own prop) chimes midnight, the boy awakes and walks towards the light at the end of a dark corridor.

"Gosh," gasps Noble, for an instant a small boy himself, marvelling at the magic that has realised his paper dreams. "Ding, ding, ding..." he sings, experimenting with where the clock strikes should begin. Lots of concentrated gum-chewing, heavy sighs and drumming of fingers. "Let's cut the zoom and pick it up here and put in the shot of the disturbances under the crack at the door, probably with the close-up of the kiddy. I've a feeling that the best point for the `ding' isn't as we pan past the clock - that's a bit on-the-nose - but after..."

You might expect the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company to show his faith in Shakespeare by playing him straight. Not a bit of it. Noble's screenplay introduces a child-dreamer whose burgeoning sexual awareness and fascination with the peculiar things adults do and say to one another in the cause of love; he puts sex centre screen. "I reckoned that a dreamer would open the door for the audience on this extraordinary sexual world," says Noble,"and make it at once innocent and sexy."

Noble was initially resistant to making a movie out of his stage Dream. "I loathe pieces of stage that are turned into television or film," he says. "I turn off. I always think, `Oh my God, this is so embarrassing.' " But the persistence - and flattery - of producer Paul Arnott (bankrolling the film through Channel 4 and the National Lottery) paid off and Noble finally capitulated. "It suddenly made sense when it occurred to me that because this is Shakespeare's most fantastical play and because the cinema has a marvellous ability to deal with fantasy, maybe there was a way in here. I thought I'd try and make what would normally be regarded as the play's biggest weakness - its theatricality and artificiality - into strengths."

Special effects apart (and there are many swanky bits of computerised high-techery), the film lines up the same RSC cast (led by Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan) and mines similar ore as Noble's surreal stage version for the RSC: the idea of a visible mortal world, which is a mirror of another invisible fairy world where objects have realities both sides of the veil. In the human context, the mechanicals - Bottom and his troupe of amateur thespians - charge into rehearsals at the scout hut shaking rain from black umbrellas. Once we've moved into the fairyland forest, these images are magically translated so that raindrops reappear as coloured light bulbs, which swing drunkenly from flexes, meanwhile the Magritte umbrella is now huge, pink and inverted to create a luxurious tarty bower in which the goofy ass (Des Barrit) humps the exquisite fairy queen Titania (Lindsay Duncan). The mechanicals double as scuffling fairies, zany powder- puff creatures in vibrant fuchsia, orange and purple with matching feather hairdos.

When Noble's production of the play opened last year, critics called it the best Dream since Peter Brooks' legendary Sixties show (a comparison Noble slyly sought when Hippolyta is first encountered swinging on a trapeze). "Beautiful", "intellectually provocative", "ravishing", they variously gushed, applauding the way in which the comedy of errors was rooted in the character's sexuality and terrors. Even the mealy-mouthed couldn't find much to quibble about beyond it being design-led (and why not?) and swamped by over-obvious Freudian symbolism (such as the rows of doors through which people move from innocence to revelation, ignorance to self- awareness).

Noble's film pushes harder in these directions. Indeed, his device of a child-dreamer also flirts dangerously with cliche and is potentially even a tad twee - its use of the child is reminiscent of Bergman's film of The Magic Flute, in which the focus keeps returning to a bright-eyed little girl in the audience to remind us how magical it all is and there's more to it than just boring old Mozart. "Ah, but I make the boy a participant [the child plays puppeteer, manipulating the characters on the stage of his toy theatre]," counters Noble. "It can be twee but what gave me the confidence to go ahead was that the play kept on referring to this human emotion of wonder - the wonder of falling in love, the wonder of acting. I felt Shakespeare was tapping this very naive and innocent emotion of wonder more than any other.

"And I think it's an honest interpretation. Shakespeare is playing with the theatrical idea of people watching other people and I'm just adding another watcher. Actually, it's just occurred to me that we could add yet another layer of watching and cut away at some point to reveal the little boy in the cinema and eating pop-corn and watching the film of the Dream. The trouble is that Osheen [the young actor] has had his hair cut and we'll have to wait till it grows before we can try it. What I like about film is that you can go on changing things, overlay one image on another to create another level of complexity. You can juxtapose and choose who is listening and watching in a way you can't on stage where you can only guide the audience, who ultimately choose for themselves. On film your proscenium arch is 1 x 1.85 [he points to the screen] and what you put in there is the only issue. A very interesting power - total control," he says, looking merrily megalomaniacal.

"But Shakespeare's plays lend themselves naturally to film - he's never been afraid of flitting from an intimate bedroom scene to battle field, from a scene with nobles to to one with fairies. And thanks to Tarantino, it's suddenly OK for characters on stage to deliver lengthy speeches. If Shakespeare were alive now he'd certainly be doing theatre - but he would also be making movies."

These days, after all, who isn't?

`Dream' is released in the UK at the end of 1996


A brief history of Shakespeare in the movies

We will shortly be celebrating a century of Shakespeare on film. One of the first films ever made, in 1899, was Herbert Beerbohm Tree's King John - silent, of course - as was Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet in 1900. If the concept of silent Shakespeare sounds silly, Professor Wells points out: "It shows that Shakespeare is not, as people sometimes erroneously say, all in the words. Shakespeare was writing visuals as well as verbals, which is one reason that the plays translate so well, because their basic scenarios are strong ones - as the recent `animated Shakespeare' showed."

But there hasn't been such a flurry of filming Shakespeare for the big screen with big names since the Forties and Fifties, when Olivier directed and starred in Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, Orson Welles his Macbeth, and Marlon Brando played Mark Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar. Before that, in the Thirties, a youthful Olivier starred as Orlando in As You Like It, and an all-star cast including Mickey Rooney (as Puck) and James Cagney (as Bottom) did Max Reinhardt's sparkling A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Between that early Golden Age of Shakespeare films and the present renaissance, which is generally credited to have been set in motion by Branagh's Henry V in 1989 for, appropriately, Renaissance Films (following the footsteps of Olivier on two counts by starting with this play that Olivier made in 1944 to raise morale during the war and by directing it himself), there were a few scattered efforts such as Zeffirelli's Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; Romeo and Juliet (1968) with unknowns Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting; Olivier's Othello in 1965; Tony Richardson's Hamlet, featuring the darling of the day Marianne Faithfull (1969); and Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971, for Playboy Productions), with Francesca Annis doing the sleepwalking scene nude.

But the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were a fertile time for Shakespeare on the small screen - particularly for lengthy history cycles, given names such as An Age of Kings (BBC 1960) and The Wars of The Roses (BBC 1964). The BBC also churned out a series of rather cheap-looking (though well played) adaptations throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties, but Trevor Nunn helmed an impressive Macbeth for Thames in 1978, with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.

But by the end of the Eighties Shakespeare was back in the cinemas, with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring in Henry V. Its success, particularly in the US, convinced the industry that the Bard was once again a worthwhile investment, and the following year Zeffirelli returned to familiar territory with his Mel Gibson-starring Hamlet. The presence of a big box-office name led to even more impressive grosses, which no doubt accounts for the presence of American heart-throbs Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves in Branagh's 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. In the US this fresh, breezy comedy made over $20m, an outstanding performance for an art-house picture.

The most recent Shakespearean adaptation reworked one of the great tragedies as an erotic thriller, presumably hoping to appeal to the Saturday night multiplex crowd. Meeting with tepid reviews, Oliver Parker's Othello, despite all the sex, violence and drastic shortening, did not live up to expectations at the box office. But it was notable for featuring another compelling performance from the Bard-friendly Branagh, and also the screen's first genuinely black Othello, African-American actor Laurence Fishburne. Some critics carped about the ruthless editing of the text and insertion of new scenes, but others maintained that such revisionism is essential if Shakespeare is to survive.


Additional reporting by Scott Hughes