British Museum blog

Filming Shakespeare’s magic

Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter


Professor Tony Howard, University of Warwick

Caliban in The Tempest. Courtesy of the Don Boyd Archive at the Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter

When I was invited to think about curating a film programme to accompany the British Museum’s exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, my first thought was to connect with the idea of the Cultural Olympiad, and to focus on Olympic years. In 1948, when London last hosted the Games, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles respectively directed Hamlet and Macbeth; they’re two radically different films, one a self-conscious classic involving Britain’s finest actors, designers and musicians, the other a ‘charcoal sketch’ filmed in a fortnight but nonetheless one of the most visually brilliant of all Shakespearean films. Together, they invented a genre.

There were attractions to the idea of tracing the parallel progress of the Olympics and Shakespearean film from London to Rome to Tokyo and beyond. But it was soon obvious that our programme should actually relate to the exhibition itself, and to its content. The exhibition is called Shakespeare: staging the world – how has cinema re-imagined the worlds that Shakespeare staged?

So there are three parts to the film programme: ‘Shakespeare’s Rome’, ‘Shakespeare’s England’, and ‘Shakespeare’s Magic’.

With both ‘Rome’ and ‘England’ we have presented two films. First an early landmark in the development of Shakespeare’s adaptation for the screen, then a more recent work, able to build on the groundwork and eager to experiment with ideas of history, politics, and the ways we all encounter them – via the media.

We began with the 1953 MGM Julius Caesar starring Marlon Brando, and we’ll follow it with Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant updating of Coriolanus into the Balkans War and our era of 24-hour television news. Then comes Olivier’s beautiful Henry V and Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s Richard III, set in an Alternative History version of 1930s London, where King Edward married an American divorcee and lived in St. Pancras Station while his brother George…I’d best stop there: spoilers.

The season began with a packed house for Julius Caesar and a post-screening discussion that carried on into the street. We’ll conclude with a study day on Saturday 17 November. We’ll ask how directors have accepted the challenge of visualising the supernatural in Macbeth and The Tempest.

In the morning we’ll focus on ‘Macbeth on Six Continents’, exploring versions from Hollywood (Welles gets in after all), Ladywood, Madagascar and…sorry. No. Spoilers.

And that afternoon we shall celebrate Derek Jarman’s astonishing counter-cultural Tempest, which he filmed in Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire during the 1979 Winter of Discontent.

We shall, I’m thrilled to say, be joined by Don Boyd, The Tempest’s producer (who himself went on to direct Richard Harris as King Lear) and David Meyer, Jarman’s Ferdinand (who previously played Hamlet on screen opposite Helen Mirren). Actually, to be precise, Don directed a modernised Lear set in Liverpool gangland, and David and his twin brother Tony played Hamlet simultaneously opposite Helen Mirren as Ophelia and the Queen.

Shakespeare on screen is extraordinary. It can be something very rich and strange.

The study day Filming Shakespeare’s magic: Macbeth on six continents and Prospero in England is at the British Museum on Saturday 17 November.
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Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

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Edward Burne-Jones was born #onthisday in 1833. This watercolour from his ‘Flower Book’ is titled ‘White Garden’. This was a name for Atriplex hortensis, a small garden plant that has edible leaves. In this painting Burne-Jones has created an imaginary ‘white garden’, populated with lilies that are being picked by two white-clad angelic figures. Like other figures in his works, they appear dressed in classically inspired white robes, with their blonde hair tied back.
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