Today, in honour of the Bard’s birthday last week, I’m doing my top ten Shakespeare plays. I’m in the middle of watching Coriolanus at the moment. It’s okay. The setting is fabulous, but I just see Voldemort when I look at Ralph Fiennes and the cast deliver their lines with absolutely no passion or understanding at all. Shakespeare should be delivered, not just said.
Anyway, bad films aside and bad casting aside, here are my favourites:
1. “The Taming of the Shrew”. I saw my favourite theatre group, Propeller, do this. This is Ed Hall’s theatre group and they are marvellous. They’re an all-male cast and it made such a difference. The Taming of the Shrew is such a problem play these days – get a woman to come to heel by training her like an animal. So most theatre companies do it in a light-hearted way, and Katherina is never really ‘broken’. At the end, modern versions present Petruchio as a man who really loves Katherina who teaches her to come out of herself and realise the freedoms she can have in marriage, if she only stops being a shrew. But Propeller did the best. I was honestly speechless for an hour after. Petruchio was cruel, insane, brutal, a wife-beater. Katherina was a broken woman – repeating her lines like an automaton at the end. I don’t think you could do that with a woman playing the part. It’d be wrong. This is undoubtedly the best version of the best play I’ve ever seen and if I died tomorrow, I know I’d have seen the Bard at his best.
Plus, 10 Things I Hate About You… excellent film.
Best quote? Petruchio at his most foul:
“I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ax, my ass, my anything,
And here she stands.”
Message? The Church never did a better thing than when they took ‘to obey’ out of the vows. If I had to belong to a man, why, I think I’d want to commit an act of murder. Even if he were a very nice man. And if a man ever said this to me, he better learn to sleep with one eye open.
2. Macbeth. Seen it about 20 times. Taught it about the same amount of times. I’ve seen versions in concentration camps, in 1930s-style Mafia get-ups, in kilts… and despite just how many times I’ve seen it, read it and studied it, it’s still great. Another Ed Hall classic performance where Malcolm reveals at the end that everything he said ‘in jest’ to MacDuff is true. He is just as tyrannical as the last. I know this play inside out, line after line. I like to be the weird sisters, mostly. Sean Bean in his prime as Macbeth – wow. Samantha Bond as a honeyed, strong and much-loved wife – wow.
Message: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
3. A Winter’s Tale. A man who goes mad with jealousy because he thinks his wife is cheating. The wife suffers because her husband is bonkers. Such is life. Those Shakespearean women were long-suffering, no doubt. The things they had to put up with! I think Hermione is my favourite of all the wives who say nothing and just put up with their husband’s insanity. And which girl hasn’t wished she could be a statue so she can hear how sorry her husband is when he’s been an idiot? Message? Husbands can be idiots and jealousy can be a killer.
4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Another one I’ve seen over and over, and from dreamy Rupert Everett playing Oberon, to Brian Glover playing Bottom with Don Estelle, Tony Bell with his HUGE appendage – it’s weird and it’s funny and it’s bonkers. Message? Fathers don’t always know best. It also has the best cat-fight in the world and shows how quickly girls will turn on each other. Shakespeare saw the ugly side of women way before Sam Brick reared her head. I love the insults between the two. Calling someone a bead and an acorn is just delightful, as is calling a tall girl a painted maypole.
5. King Lear. Not only don’t fathers know best, sometimes, wicked sisters are as much your flesh and blood as the worst of the wicked step-sisters. Heart-wrenchingly sad.
6. Much Ado About Nothing. Were there ever such a fabulous couple as Beatrice and Benedick? Is there anything so sweet as seeing hardened bachelor Benedick threaten to kill a man who offended his love? Great lines, great comebacks, a great battle of the wits – and so much better than the cheesy teen angst of Romeo. Really, Romeo – you were only being banished. It’s all a bit melodramatic, love. Give me Benedick and Beatrice any day. Even Kenneth Branagh, super-lovie, made it lovely. Sometimes, I get him mixed up in my head with Eddie Izzard. In my mind, that’s who I’m picturing.
7. Henry V. If just for the inspiring battle cry of Harry. For God, for Harry and for St George. Nothing makes me feel patriotic like that does.
8. Coriolanus. Message: just because you save a country doesn’t mean anyone will thank you for it. The masses are idiots who only care about where their next pasty comes from. Someone should have told Cameron. Look what happened over pasty tax. Those media crows were indeed pecking at something. I’m not sure it was an eagle, though. More like a mockingbird.
9. Richard III. I was going to choose Othello for villainy wondering if there could be a better villain than Iago. Of course there can… the vile and repulsive Dick Three. I love it because one of my drama lovies repeatedly said ‘I’m doing Dick’ before class. Ralph Fiennes should have done Dick Three. I love the way Ricky chats up his future wife over her dead husband’s coffin (An Olivier invention, I know). Cold. Nothing about this man is redeeming. I’m surprised children don’t shout ‘He’s behind you!’ when he comes on stage. I know McKellen did a Hitleresque Dick, but even Hitler didn’t have his brothers children locked up. Not only that, he twists more than a twisty-turny thing. When he says “I am determined to prove a villain,” he so does. He puts all other villains to shame. Even his own mother turns against him. Plus, I love the line: “Thou elvish-marked abortive rooting hog!” – it’s nigh-on the best insult ever. Message? Those old kings were twisted, man. I see Peter Dinklage, oh he of Game of Thrones, played Dick. I bet he played it superbly. He’s even slightly charming. This is not your thinking-man’s villain, this is your pure-and-simple cold-blooded, calculating, brutal, manipulative villain. Great stuff.
10. The Tempest. If you want to understand colonialism, read this and Heart of Darkness and nothing else. Again, bonkers fathers who are much in need of a good and sensible wife to calm things down. Women are much missed in Shakespeare.