This year, the world commemorates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Kino Pavasaris and the British Council in Lithuania, will mark this important occasion with films based on the famous playwright’s works. The special retrospective Shakespeare Lives will comprise six films created in the United Kingdom by prominent directors, who honour and interpret the Bard’s plays and poetry.
The films, spanning different genres and created over the past 50 years, showcase Shakespeare’s enduring relevance and widespread appeal. Roman Polanski, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Richard Loncraine, Laurence Olivier and Barry Purves reinvent the writer’s famous works in their own unique cinematic languages.
“Shakespeare is the most famous and important author of screenplays. More than a 100 film adaptations of his works were made – he has no equal. We really need Shakespeare in our pop-culture world. My understanding is that normal popular culture wouldn’t be possible without him,”
Rytis Zemkauskas, television presenter
At first, filmmakers’ attempts at adapting Shakespeare for the big screen were met with strong opposition from the theatre community. They thought that cinema could not accurately portray works written for the stage. Regardless, Shakespeare’s plays became some of the most popular cinematic adaptations, equalling their theatre productions in quality.
“Hamlet” (1948) by Laurence Olivier is one of the most essential films based on Shakespeare’s works. It won four Academy Awards and proved that Shakespeare is perfectly suited for cinema. “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”, says Olivier at the beginning of the black-and-white film, summing up its essence. The film portrays the strained relationships between Danish prince Hamlet, his beloved Ophelia, the queen Gertrude and her second husband, king Claudius, who murdered his brother and married his widow to obtain the throne. This crime affects each of the characters and leads to insanity through suffering, fear and despair.
When Roman Polanski directed “Macbeth” in 1971, most film critics associated his choice with the recent tragic death of his wife. Polanski rejected such statements, claiming that this play was his sole motivator to return to filmmaking at a time when everything else seemed pointless, and no other project appeared worthy of his efforts.
Polanski’s “Macbeth” is a tense drama filled with intrigue, power struggles, deceit and supernatural forces. When three witches prophesize that Macbeth will one day become King of Scotland, the general, helped by his wife and consumed by ambition, murders the king and claims his throne. In the end, Macbeth’s arrogance and thirst for power become his undoing.
In “Richard III” (1995), director Richard Loncraine modernises the play, setting it in fictionalised 1930s fascist England during civil war. This unique adaptation only proves Shakespeare’s lasting relevance and gives new meaning to his tale of ambition and murderous treachery. The fascist leader Richard, played by the always excellent Ian McKellen, formulates a brutal plan to become England’s dictator monarch, which brings his family and the entire country to ruin.
Experimental adaptations of Shakespeare’s works became popular toward the end of the 1970s. Two such films will be included in the Shakespeare Lives retrospective, proving that good films do not always need to tell stories.
“The Angelic Conversation” (1985) was Derek Jarman’s favourite artistic project. It is structured around sonnets, read off-screen by Judi Dench, and follows two men in love, exploring their deepest desires. The film combines dreams and reality, past and present, with the exaltation of love contrasting with depressing reality.
John Gielgud had played Prospero in theatrical adaptations of “The Tempest” many times, but dreamed of portraying this character on the big screen. He proposed adapting the play to many directors, including Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, but Gielgud’s idea started to take shape when it caught the interest of Peter Greenaway.
The exiled magician Prospero gets stranded on an island, along with his daughter and resident spirits, hoping to return to his rightful place as Duke of Milan. “Prospero's Books” follows the play’s original text, bringing to life the illustrations from 24 books in Prospero’s magic library. Greenaway used innovative techniques and pioneered digital technology to realize his phantasmagorical vision.
The retrospective will also include the enchanting short film “Next” (1990) from British director and animator Barry Purves. It portrays Will, an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Shakespeare, auditioning in front of Peter, a busy producer who pays no attention to him. During a spectacular performance, Will acts out 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. The visually exciting and humorous short film keeps viewers guessing which play is being re-enacted at any given time.