I’m working now on a screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (not doing it for anybody at present, just doing it – though I hope, of course, to take it somewhere) and have been thinking a lot about setting in film versus stage adaptations of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare onstage is frequently done not in period but in some non-period setting. This is sufficiently common that, in fact, the choice to mount, say, Romeo and Juliet in Renaissance Veronese costume must be justified – that is to say, that choice has to mean something, it isn’t a default setting. And what’s true for the plays with a clear historical period setting (whether contemporaneous to Shakespeare or not) is even more true for the plays that defy any clear setting – Cymbeline, say, or The Winter’s Tale, or Hamlet. (Have you ever seen a Hamlet actually set in the Danish Dark Ages?)
But the most frequent – and, I would argue, correct – use of period in stage productions is as a kind of emotional shorthand. If you set Hamlet in central Europe at the end of the 19th century, you are making use of the fact that we have certain stereotypes about that period already in our minds. You’re not really saying something about turn of the century Vienna – at least, nothing terribly original or complex. You’re probably not even saying something new and original about Hamlet by means of the setting. Most likely, all you’re doing is letting us know straight off the kind of Hamlet we’re about to see, settling us in to the play more quickly by acting it out with types we already know.
For this reason there is no particular requirement that period setting be consistent, and a great deal of Shakespeare is set in no consistent time or place. About a decade ago, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival did Henry IV part 1 and part 2, along with Henry V, and in none of the plays was the period setting consistent. In the Henry IV plays, Hal and Poins were in modern dress; Hal’s father and the rest of the court were in early 20th-century garb; and Falstaff and his minions of the night were in medieval homespun and studded leather. In Henry V, the English were fighting World War I, while the French were medieval knights and for most of the play (until he is murdered by the cowardly French), a page wanders the stage chronicling everything on a camcorder (said chronicle appearing immediately on a huge video screen upstage). And this jumble of costume worked wonderfully. Hal and Poins were set apart, emphasizing Hal’s alienation both from court and from Falstaff’s world, emphasizing as well his protean nature (he’s not defined by a role he’s playing – he can play any role as needed), but also making him seem more authentic, easier to identify with than some Hals are (he’s the only one apparently not in costume). The court’s early 20th century setting established this as a formal, uptight place – the kind of place we could immediately empathize with Hal for running away from. And setting Falstaff’s world in Merrie Olde England made it easy for us to enjoy his exploits on the wrong side of the law (it would be harder if Falstaff led a band of modern-day bandits) but also made it clear that his world was a world of nostalgia and play-acting, something to be put aside with other childish things, not a world that Hal could actually choose. Making the French medieval knights fighting WWI-era English solved a variety of problems at once; on the one hand, it made visceral the significance of the English longbow that achieved the victory at Agincourt, and made it easy to mock the French, which wouldn’t be the case if everyone were dressed as WWI-era soldiers; on the other hand, it both strengthened the emotional connection with the English fighting force (we still retain enormous affection for those who fought and suffered in the Great War) and undercut Henry V’s stirring martial rhetoric (we are far more cynical about the ideology and rhetoric that made that war possible). This is what I mean by using period setting as a short-cut to emotional connection.
Not every production works this way, of course. But my point is: on stage, you have a variety of choices to make about set and costume, and these may or may not reflect a cohesive vision of the play as set in a specific place and time – and even if they are, that setting will always take a back seat to the text (and if it doesn’t, the play probably won’t work). On screen, though, the balance is different. On screen, even if you want to just “do the play” you are forced to make important visual choices that will stand out more than they would on stage, simply because film is a more visual medium – more information is coming in through the eye relative to the ear than is the case on stage. For that reason, the setting, which is going to dominate the visual (Shakespeare only wrote dialogue and a few stage directions, after all), is going to carry much more of the weight in a film than it is in a stage production.
This is true even in movie that tries very hard just to “stage” the play, such as Olivier’s “Richard III,” which is a movie about, mostly, how fascinating it is to watch Sir Lawrence do his thing. (This is a perfectly good way in: the central irony of the play, after all, is that Richard, who finds himself repellent, is magnetically fascinating to everyone else, especially the audience – and must be, to achieve his villainous intent.) Because so much of what we’re looking at looks staged, the movie comes to be about that kind of theatricality. But you can also go all the way to the other end of the spectrum, and produce a movie like Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s “Richard III”. If, in the examples of stage productions I gave above, costume and setting were used to give us an easier emotional entry into the play, here the play is what is giving us an easier emotional entry into a movie making a harsh political indictment. (That indictment being: that the British royal family in the 1930s – not just Edward VIII but George VI and the whole pack – were not only sympathetic to continental fascism but, if they had their way, would have installed a similar tyranny in Britain as well. The movie pairs nicely with “The Kings Speech” – functioning less as a digestive than as a kind of emetic. I’m surprised Christopher Hitchens didn’t offer such a prescription in his review of the Oscar-winning film.) Because we all know who Richard III is, and already know him primarily from Shakespeare’s depiction of him (the efforts of the White Boar Society having largely been in vain), we are able to understand immediately what the movie is trying to say about, not Richard III, but the royals in 1930s Britain. And that political point becomes much richer because Shakespeare’s Richard is a lot more complex than a cartoon fascist.
Loncraine’s movie was based on a celebrated stage production directed by Richard Eyre, and while obviously I can’t speak to a stage version I didn’t see, I strongly suspect that the balance of our attention, divided between Shakespeare’s play and the 1930s setting, shifted substantially in the move from stage to screen. Our eyes feast on all that Art Deco. Because of the setting and the music and the sorts of people who are scheming for power, we’re put in mind of gangster films of the period – the closing, specifically, seems to me to be an homage to the Cagney classic, “White Heat.” But most importantly, we don’t ever forget that we’re looking at a story about a fascist Britain. That’s what the story is – because that’s what we see. Shakespeare’s text doesn’t vanish, but it’s serving what in many ways is a new story.
Anyway, I’m struggling with this question of balance myself. Of how much Shakespeare to retain and how much new dialogue to write. (Yes, I am writing new dialogue – potentially a lot of it. I could wind up going as far as “My Own Private Idaho,” with only occasional gestures in the direction of the original Shakespeare text.) But also of how much the story I’m telling is a story about my setting (which is contemporary Russia). Obviously, some of what I’m interested in is the setting, or I wouldn’t have picked it. But how much? What’s the balance? How much am I willing to change from my Shakespearean source to wind up with a story that springs organically from the setting I’ve chosen? How do I handle the rather glaring inconsistencies between the actuality of my setting and the world of Shakespeare’s play? What does living with those inconsistencies do to the perceived reality of the world of the film?
Not questions I expect answers to, but consider this an invitation to say what you like about the relationship between text and setting on stage versus on screen, examples that have worked well and examples that have worked poorly.