The Merchant of Venice is a funhouse mirror

The Merchant of Venice is a perfect example of one of Shakespeare’s key tricks: writing things that can be taken to be making entirely opposite statements, depending on your point of view. Is King Lear a misogynist play or a play about the damage done by misogyny? Is Coriolanus showing the dangers of a despotic ruling class or of mob rule by the people? Is Hamlet really mad?

What we can say is that Merchant asks its audience to think about the reality of what lies behind the surface image. The fairytale task of choosing the right casket and the nonsensical legal quibble about flesh being distinct from blood are vehicles for a question that is every bit as embedded in our lives today as it was in the lives of Shakespeare’s first audience – how do you reckon the value of a person?

In NSW Australia the final year of secondary school culminates in sitting for your Higher School Certificate (HSC), despite there no longer being such a thing as the School Certificate (a relic from when it was reasonably common to leave school at the end of year 10). There are various English level options, but they share one Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences. This module has a huge variety of set texts to choose from, one of which is The Merchant of Venice. This video is framed in such a way as to be pertinent to that module, but also fine for general interest watching.

What Makes a Great Adaptation?

I remember going to see the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Howards End at the cinema. I knew it had only just come out, so I was puzzled by the feeling that I’d seen it before. I realised it was simply that the film captured the image of the book that was in my head so absolutely that it was already familiar. That was a singular occurrence, most of the time I am one of those people who grumble that It Wasn’t As Good As The Book (for pretty much any instance of ‘it’). This being the season of watching cosy period dramas, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on exceptions to that rule, and give a little appreciation to what can be done with an adaptation.

When I feel dissatisfied with a screen adaptation I tell myself to think of it as an illustrated edition of the book, rather than expecting it to be the same story in a different medium. That is, I treat it as adding some images to certain moments. I expect there would be many filmmakers who would loathe that attitude, as it implies inherently that their version is less the real thing or an independent work of art. What can I say? I’m a book nerd.

Sometimes an adapted film can be a wonderful work in its own right, but is simply not the book. The Name of the Rose falls into this category, and so does Sally Potter’s Orlando, which is one of my favourite films of all time, criminally under-recognised in retrospectives of great achievements in cinema, but is saying very different things from Virginia Woolf’s novel.

Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crisp in Orlando

Part of the trouble is as simple as length. A short story is a more appropriate length for a movie than a full-blown novel (The Body becoming Stand By Me, for instance), demanding fewer sacrifices of detail.

Another problem is the one I have discussed previously of screenplays feeling an obligation to limit dialogue. Dialogue in books is much more intrinsic to establishing relationships, where it is not possible to cut between the lingering gazes of our protagonists, so the translation to screen often involves losing dialogue that was responsible for creating the characters in the original. Relatedly, conversely, a scene in a novel can be wittily described, but with little of that wit residing in the dialogue, which is why there are so many Jane Austen adaptations where it seems everyone is cursed to spend their days at really boring dinner parties.

This is probably why I like stage adaptations of novels. There is simply no way a theatrical performance can be a direct transposition of a written story, so it doesn’t try. Instead you are more likely to see imaginative modes of storytelling where things are distilled and indicated rather than presented literally. Theatre is also more comfortable with both dialogue and direct address. It’s hard for a movie to use a narration without giving the feeling that some other way of getting across the information could have been found, whereas an actor having a chat to the audience injects energy into a scene.

But I said I was going to praise film adaptations, not bury them, so let us look at some successes and what made them work.

There is really nothing like the pleasure of the Good British Series Adaptation when they’re really on their game, with little gems stretching back decades. I suspect that in the 1970s and 80s the BBC gave their people not just the money but the time to live with a book and its characters. This permitted for tiny masterpieces like Barchester Chronicles, where Thackery’s dry humour became a springboard for the entire ensemble to build individuated character quirks and taut, persuasive interactions (Alan Rickman’s Obadiah Slope was unforgettable), and in more lavish productions gave us performances like a luminous Nicola Pagett in Anna Karenina and an incandescent Rufus Sewell in Middlemarch. But too much has been forgotten about the similar work done for young people, bringing countless afternoon family-time series out of classic children’s novels, with no recognition for how clever the screenwriters and directors must have been to give so many well-read stories new lives: The Secret Garden, Carrie’s War, The Peppermint Pig, The Railway Chidren, Come Back Lucy, The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe – they seemed endless when one is a child. All with impeccable production values, and such care given to respecting the stories. I would say that the reason these adaptations work, without becoming overly literary, is that the actors were given enough material to work with, and then enough space to invent themselves.

I can think of only two occasions when I believe a film adaptation actually improved on its source. One is Stardust, which is a charming novel but was an experiment for Neil Gaiman in setting up a fairytale-like scenario, but then deliberately not resolving the plot in a conventional way. The film both gave the piece a more robust structure and gave opportunities for many wonderful actors (including, oddly, most of the cast of Green Wing) to enrich the depiction of characters who are rather thinly sketched in the original.

The other is The Commitments, where Roddy Doyle’s novel is amusing, but lacks the sense communicated so viscerally in the film of why the Dubliners truly, urgently need the band to give them purpose and hope. The novel doesn’t really try to differentiate among the three female band members and draw them as individuals, nor does Jimmy have the passionate belief in what Soul means as a genre, the way he does in the film.

Then there are the magical convergences in which a sensitive screenwriter and a group of expressive, intelligent actors make the material sing. I regard I Capture the Castle as an example of masterful adapting. This perfect little book by Dodie Smith is shaped by its form as an ostensible journal written by Cassandra. An adaptation should have been tricky due to dominant perspective of the first person narrator, the small scale of the drama, and the proportion of the piece that takes place in the head of the heroine, as she unpicks everything that is happening around her. In an act of alchemy the screenwriter, Heidi Thomas, managed to take lengthy descriptive passages and distil them into brief moments that tell us in shorthand everything about the family dynamics, starting with the opening scene of Cassandra sitting on the edge of the kitchen sink, writing, while her flighty older sister, Rose, and Bohemian stepmother (not wicked), Topaz, have a blazing row followed by a tearful reconciliation. Changes from the book are judicious and make sense for purpose, for instance, making the little brother younger removed the sense that he should probably be doing something to help by now. In the book, the final conversation between Cassandra and the man she is in love with hinges on things they don’t say, but the writer understood that in a film we needed to hear them speak more openly with each other about why they shouldn’t be together. These tweaks are balanced with other scenes that play exactly as if the actors are living the book’s pages. So few filmmakers manage this wisdom in balancing what to change and what to keep.

Rose Byrne and Romola Garai in I Capture the Castle

To finish: a more recent success story. I have just watched Shadow and Bone, without advance knowledge of the novels, and have loved feeling that the worldbuilding has enough substance to really sink your teeth into. So many characters and a highly complex magic system to introduce, not to mention the class and politics, but the adaptors found an abundance of vivid visual signifiers and sharp verbal exchanges to bring us in. I fell so fast and so hard for the trio of Crows that I immediately tore through the two books that focus on their story, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. All the props in the world to these actors, they live as if they have bled right off the page onto the screen. It’s quite fascinating to read about a muscle in Kaz’s jaw tightening when he is unhappy about something but not going to speak of it – and then see the actor actually do that! There is so much to praise in the design and the cinematography, but I think in this instance the credit has to go to the actors, who clearly love their characters and have a burningly clear vision of who they are.

The Crows from Shadow and Bone

May you have plenty of lavish costume dramas to satiate you over the holiday period. Feel free to tell me of your favourites.

The funniest Shakespeare scene you will never see

“He is the bluntest wooer in Christendom.”

Shakespeare wrote eight history plays about the Wars of the Roses. Richard III, Henry V and Part 1 of Henry IV get plenty of showings, still. The others languish in varying degrees of obscurity.

The tragedy of these histories is that there is so much good stuff that audiences never get to see. These are lengthy, dense texts full of battles and politics and lords with interchangeable names. They don’t make an easy pitch to a theatre company trying to fill a room. Even when they are staged, it is usually by amalgamating several into one compressed performance, and even then some of the best bits seem to get cut simply because directors find the material too perplexing, or at any rate, fear the audience will.

My favourite case study for this is Act 3 scene 2 of 3 Henry VI. This scene is one that hardly anyone is aware exists, because Henry VI is performed so rarely, and even when it is, it is usually heavily cut to combine it with the other Henry VI plays. Even in the grand, televised cycle-series The Hollow Crown it was still reduced beyond recognition, with George and Richard excised and the remaining two actors playing entirely ‘straight’. And it’s such a shame, because it’s such fun!

Thou art a widow and thou hast some children,
And, by God’s mother, I, being but a bachelor,
Have other some.

Fortunately, I am able to offer you a taste of what this scene should look like. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in 2016, I directed a rehearsed reading of Margaret of Anjou: a new play by Shakespeare. Prof. Elizabeth Schafer of Royal Holloway University made a wonderful new play by combining the bits of Shakespeare’s history plays, four in all, that include Queen Margaret, to tell her story. You can read more about The Margaret Project HERE, HERE and HERE.

This is not one of Queen Margaret’s scenes, but has a knock-on effect for her story arc, because it is Edward IV’s marriage to the widowed Lady Grey which prompts Warwick the Kingmaker to switch sides from York to Lancaster. It is an early point in the story to feature Richard Duke of Gloucester, later to become Richard III, and concludes with his soliloquy that includes the famous, “I can smile, and murder whiles I smile” (more on this HERE).

What is really brilliant about this scene is the ensemble comedy, and modern directors just don’t know what to do with such a hilarious scene, positioned bang in the middle of a string of murders and bloody conflicts. As Edward does his best to seduce a virtuous widow who resolutely refuses to understand what he is hinting at, his brothers, George and Richard, run a snarky commentary from up the back.

GEORGE, aside to Richard
I think he means to beg a child of her.
RICHARD, aside to George
Nay, then, whip me; he’ll rather give her two.

One of Shakespeare’s hallmarks was giving ‘serious’ characters comic moments, and this may be the very best example of that, as all four actors zip along a string of different emotions and attitudes, reacting to each other, and to the rapidly changing circumstances.

The Margaret Project, Io Myers Theatre 2016

KING EDWARD
You’d think it strange if I should marry her?
GEORGE
To who, my lord?

This video was recorded for archive purposes and so, alas, doesn’t show the actors at their effervescent best (single-fixed-camera setups can never truly capture the energy of a live room). They were an absolute joy to watch on the night, the banter fizzing and the audience roaring. But I’m sure you will forgive the technology and imagine how this scene plays in a live show.

Porlock, Prufrock and One Warm Saturday

There is a famous story that claims that Coleridge wrote only the first part of “Kubla Khan”, due to an interruption. He conceived the full poem, complete, in a dream, wrote in a reverie, and lost everything after the fifty-forth line when a visitor from Porlock was announced and he was forced to raise his eyes from his page.

Reflecting on the process of writing, on the experience of being a writer, can be done directly or indirectly. It should not surprise if writers like to leverage a metaphor to express the feeling of being gripped and then abandoned by an idea, of clutching as you fall at something to which you were holding tight moments ago. Coleridge was describing an experience of writing, whether or not the person from Porlock was real.

My pet theory about “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is that Eliot chose the name to have a sonic resonance for his audience with Coleridge’s visitor from Porlock, to ensure that his reported experience was in the back of the reader’s mind for the duration of the poem.

That is probably not all that revelatory a notion, but let me complicate things by adding a little bit about Dylan Thomas. The short story “One Warm Saturday” includes no explicit indication that it represents a dream. It begins in a very naturalistic setting, with a small-scale daytrip adventure, a visit to the seaside not unlike Prufrock’s. By the end of the story he has found and lost an unexpected girl. Lost because a call of nature, like Coleridge’s visitor or Eliot’s human voices, has pulled him out of the place where he knew where to find her.