So there’s this new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” happening, starring Ethan Hawke and directed by Michael Almereyda who also directed Ethan Hawke in a film version of “Hamlet.” Check out this bangin’ trailer:
Cymbeline is not widely done. It’s one of Shakespeare’s romances (when I think about Shakespeare’s switch to romances, I like to imagine that he was writing a comedy and accidentally broke his “forest” backdrop, and had to switch to “rocks”). Anyway, it’s got a lot of Shakespeare’s usual bits: exchanged rings, sword fights, a fickle man, a loyal servant, a chaste girlfriend besmirched, and a marriage. It’s fun.
So Almereyda has chosen to set this story as a modern gang epic, which is… a choice, and I have mixed feelings about that transposition. “Cymbeline” has a softness, a manneredness, a magical quality to it that seems to me to be in conflict with this new staging. But even when I give this production the benefit of the doubt, artistically, I can’t help but feel conflicted about the whole enterprise.
Firstly, I’m always happy to see Shakespeare made accessible and available. His writings are so maligned in the English class and staged so painfully and soullessly, but contain such heart, such empathy, and such complexity of thought that I feel exposure to them can only expand one’s soul. Let’s get some more butts in seats watching Shakespeare! And I like having a go-to DVD of each play that I can watch on a dime.
But film is a visual medium. It is composed of sequential images, to which adding sound is not necessary, and to which language can even be a detriment. This is not always the case, but many film pedagogues preach that the less language used in telling a cinematic story, theoretically, the more successful the filmic exercise.
Shakespeare’s incredible stories make him tempting for the movie treatment. They are beautifully structured, complex, and spectacular. Many stage adaptations even focus on these elements. It’s easy to find the sex scene, the chase, the climax, and resolution, and they’re fun to shoot. He was a bard, a storyteller, crafting characters and arcs to make the groundlings laugh, swoon, and gasp.
What then, of language? Let us not forget that he was also a poet. The Poet.
And this element doesn’t really play onscreen. Voice-over soliloquies lose their subtlety (their meaning!) when spoken in the soft unfocused tones of the microphone whisper. The language is what is persuasive about the scenes! How will these characters make their discoveries when the iambic deluge isn’t pouring into them? Can we buy that action? Can it be replaced by mere imagery? If it can, doesn’t that make it a new story?
When we lose the Poet do we lose the Bard?