The play’s the thing


Last weekend I re-watched In the Bleak Midwinter, and had an epiphany.

I have been dying to re-watch this film since a chance encounter via Blockbusters (now there’s a blast from the past!) which seemed destined never to be repeated. In case I haven’t mentioned it before, it’s a very sweet, very funny, black and white number directed and written by Kenneth Branagh about a troupe of actors putting on a production of Hamlet. It was as funny as I remembered, had more depth than I recalled, and led to this blinding revelation – I will probably never see a production of Hamlet which means as much to me as the show we get in this film.

It’s a simple equation really – you don’t see the whole play, and it carries not only its own emotional weight as Hamlet but that of the whole film too. How could it fail to be more than just a good production? And yes, it is very ironic I came to this realisation about Hamlet, given the extra importance given to a play in the story.

The worst thing is, I don’t think that Hamlet is going to be the only victim. Could any production of Romeo and Juliet stand up to the premiere as presented in Shakespeare in Love? I mean come on – that had Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow at their most attractive, as well a second plot-level of star-crossed lovers to carry it through. Not to mention the fabulous reactions of the audience (especially Imelda Staunton as the nurse) – it’s a lot easier to be spellbound when everyone else is too.

It doesn’t always work perfectly. I remember being spellbound at A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Dead Poets Society when I first saw it, but the production now looks laughably dated. Even so it has that electric frisson of a production where everything is going serendipitously right. The feeling is written so clearly on Robert Sean Leonard’s face.

RSL Dead Poets Society

So it doesn’t have to be the perfect production. What it does have to have is weight behind it. In Stage Beauty, for complicated reasons of plot, the actors playing Othello and Desdemona each have reason to hate the other (and Othello used to play Desdemona. Yes you read that right.). So when they finally act out the death scene opposite each other the tension is heightened – it is easier to suspend the disbelief and imagine that murder may actually happen in front of your eyes.

But it doesn’t have to be bleak to make a lasting impression. A number of years ago I caught Kiss Me Kate at the British Film Institute (in the original 3d which was a real eye opener – an unexpected number of objects, including a banana and a swing, are launched directly at camera). It features a very Hollywood-does-Broadway-does-Shakespeare production of The Taming of the Shrew complete with catchy Cole Porter numbers. “I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua” sticks out. Especially the rhymes (mad you are, cad you are, you get the general idea.).


Maybe the thing about productions in films is that they most closely replicate the experience of actually putting on a play. I haven’t acted since secondary school, having no real talent for it (the fact that one of the plays I helped to costume at university starred Eddie Redmayne should show quite how hopelessly outclassed I was). But I can still remember the way it felt – all the work, the relationships (good and bad), the heightened emotions and the incredible buzz of performing. It’s a much bigger experience than just seeing a performance. And anything that captures it is giving itself one hell of an emotional throw weight.

And sometime – sometimes – it’s just a bloody good laugh, like when Thursday Next and Landen Parke-Laine go to the speak-a-long-a Richard III in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair:

Richard opened his mouth to speak, and the whole audience erupted in unison:

‘When is the winter of our discontent?’

‘Now,’ replied Richard with a cruel smile, ‘is the winter of our discontent…’

A cheer went up to the chandeliers high in the ceiling. The play had begun. Landen and I cheered with them. Richard III was one of those plays that could repeal the law of diminishing returns; it could be enjoyed over and over again.

‘… made glorious summer by this son of York,’ continued Richard, limping to the side of the stage. On the word ‘summer’ six hundred people placed sunglasses on and looked up at an imaginary sun.

I really want to see Richard III again.

4 thoughts on “The play’s the thing

  1. I haven’t read that Jasper Fforde book, but what a great idea – the audience joining in as they would with a singalong screening of the Sound of Music. Very funny.
    On a slight diversion, I always loved the film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – catching the young Gary Oldman and Tim Roth at their peak, glimpsing snippets Hamlet from the point of view of the bemused R and G emphasises the themes of the play and Hamlet’s mental state. A very creative spin on the Bard.


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