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Films and televised plays of Shakespeare rarely satisfy everyone. The too-often-heard negative criticisms are that 'Shakespeare' (the plays) belongs only in a live theatre or that the printed poetry of the published play 'text' is to be respected above all else. Some critics loathe what they consider to be textually deviant performances of an experimental or trivializing modern kind. Others target the ambiguous ideological status of supposedly 'refashioned' Shakespeare in popular media forms, where the dominant reading that emerges, however creatively innovative, nonetheless reaffirms a basically conservative cultural interpretation of complex plays.
These critical concerns shouldn't be dismissed lightly. They all raise serious issues for theatre, directing, design and film professionals and students who are interested both in the relationship between different forms of media and in the processes of adaptation. The criticisms also draw attention to the continuing status value of Shakespeare as cultural capital in the popular media, where artistic reputations and big money are to be made with a hit. (1)
Most importantly, critical debate testifies to the fact that Shakespeare onscreen introduces to the experience many people who have never seen or read the plays. As Russell Jackson puts it:
There will always be movies that address their audience by saying 'you thought Shakespeare was like this--well, he is and we've captured it on film. There are also ... plenty that say 'You didn't think Shakespeare could be like this, did you?' (2)
Like director Baz Luhrmann, in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), Kenneth Branagh has adapted a classic play for modern eyes and minds to read on film.
Remember, too, something that every Shakespeare teacher suspects (and veteran Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier is supposed to have told people repeatedly) that if Shakespeare were alive today he'd be writing films. I think this film has much to offer as a teaching text for serious discussion and close analysis. Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was conceived from the outset as a feature film rather than 'Shakespeare made for television' or as a televised record of a noted stage production, both of which lead to different creative outcomes.
Branagh's approach to Much Ado About Nothing invites us to focus on filmmaking decisions that have to be made in transforming a screenplay based on a playtext into predominantly visual language. For example, Branagh marshalled a large cast of extras because he wanted to create a busy onscreen 'household' for Leonato, asserting that 'a film of Shakespeare should have no empty moments'. (3) What are the implications for Shakespeare's verbal 'language' here? Does the narrative structure have to be edited? How are characters visualised? Who gets to play major roles and why? What about recontextualization and stylistic changes? Are they justified, do they work? Can visual language rearticulate the imaginative world of words? These and other questions can be explored when looking at Much Ado About Nothing's sexy and stylish …