THE COMPLETE WORKS

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The Independent Culture
A slew of Shakespearean screenplays are about to hit the multiplex. After this week's Twelfth Night, audiences can look forward to Branagh's Hamlet, Al Pacino's Richard III, Leonardo di Caprio's Romeo, and a resolutely RSC Midsummer Night's Dream from theatre director Adrian Noble. There's even talk of Tarantino directing Macbeth. So why the sudden bardolatry?

The current Renaissance boom began seven years ago with Branagh's Henry V, but Shakespeare has always offered film-makers a winning blend of non- copywrited violence, sex and cultural cachet. Just think of Olivier's Freudian Hamlet or Polanski's ultra-violent, Playboy-produced Macbeth with Lady Macbeth raving in the nude. As far back as 1908, Shakespeare was being used to generate melodrama and defend the industry against allegations of immorality - with mixed success. An early Julius Caesar drew the wrath of the New York clergy for showing a man in a "short skirt", while the Chicago police demanded the excision of the assassination scene.

Shakespeare also acts as an actor magnet. Stage players enjoy the international audiences, while screen stars will happily trade down their celebrity for some theatrical gravitas. From Orson Welles to Keanu Reeves, performers have sought prestige in iambic pentameter, and their willingness to accept low fees for the privilege has made the studios happy to play along with what would otherwise be risky box-office.

Critical snobbery has also waned, to the extent that adaptations slashed for the screen and stuffed with Americans no longer automatically generate contempt but are judged instead on cinematic merit. Branagh's soon to be released Hamlet boasts an unmolested text, but audiences will be helped through the long haul by familiar 19th-century costuming and a stellar cast that includes Robin Williams as Osric and Billy Crystal as a gravedigger. In contrast, Baz (Strictly Ballroom) Luhrmann's imminent Romeo and Juliet offers a trippy contemporary reworking, replete with sunglasses, sports cars and gang violence.

Such revisionism is nothing new. A 15-minute Indian Romeo and Juliet was released in 1912, and in the very first film Shakespeare in 1899 (starring stage legend Herbert Beerbohm Tree) irreverent producers inserted extra scenes to beef up the drama. Still, it's hard to imagine these early pioneers coming up with anything like this week's Tromeo and Juliet in which our hero soliloquises on the toilet, Juliet gives birth to live rats, and the chorus comes courtesy of Motorhead's Lemmy.

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