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Contemporary Shakespeare

Shakespeare updated to the present day

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Just as Shakespeare himself would take plots written by others and adapt them to fit the style and sensibilities of the late Elizabethan era, so contemporary writers and directors have updated his plays to their own times. That said, this happens less frequently on screen than it does on stage, possibly a side-effect of what is considered a more "realistic" medium.

Between 1921 and 1936, three British films updated Othello to a contemporary story set against the backdrop of a stage production of the play - the two versions of Carnival (1921 and 1931) and Men Are Not Gods (d. Walter Reisch, 1936) all revolve around married actors engulfed by real-life jealousy.

All Night Long (d. Basil Dearden, 1961) and Andrew Davies' television Othello (LWT, tx. 23/12/2001) relocated the play to, respectively, the early 1960s London jazz scene (a jealous drummer spreads vicious rumours after his dream combo falls apart) and the present day (John Othello is appointed the Metropolitan Police's first black commissioner over his jealous former superior Ben Jago).

The Taming of the Shrew became a musical comedy in You Made Me Love You (d. Monty Banks, 1933) and a farce in Second Best Bed (d. Tom Walls, 1938), though here the Shakespeare links are more tenuous.

Joe Macbeth (d. Ken Hughes, 1955) and My Kingdom (d. Don Boyd, 2001) restage Shakespeare in a gangland setting: the former transposing Macbeth to New York, while the latter moves King Lear to Liverpool, with Richard Harris as an elderly gang leader whose decision to hand his "kingdom" over to his daughters sparks chaos.

These films either featured none of Shakespeare's text or restricted it to excerpts from stage performances taking place within the film. But some productions retained the original text but presented it in a radically different setting to that which Shakespeare implied. For instance, both As You Like It (d. Christine Edzard, 1992) and Macbeth on the Estate (BBC, tx. 5/4/1997) transfer the original plays to run-down housing estates in London's East End and Birmingham respectively.

The plays have also been staged in alternative versions of the present or recent past. Julius Caesar lends itself well to such treatment, and has had several productions along these lines, while Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995) is set in an imaginary Fascist Britain along the lines of what it might have been like had Adolf Hitler or indeed Oswald Mosley achieved power.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of All Night Long (1961)All Night Long (1961)

Shakespeare's Othello meets the early 1960s London jazz scene

Thumbnail image of Carnival (1921)Carnival (1921)

A Venetian actor's life mirrors that of Othello in this silent melodrama

Thumbnail image of Carnival (1931)Carnival (1931)

A Venetian actor identifies a little too closely with his character, Othello

Thumbnail image of Men Are Not Gods (1936)Men Are Not Gods (1936)

Romantic comedy melodrama inspired by Shakespeare's Othello

Thumbnail image of You Made Me Love You (1933)You Made Me Love You (1933)

Light musical comedy inspired by The Taming of the Shrew

Thumbnail image of Othello (2001)Othello (2001)

Contemporary update, with Othello as the Met's first black head

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