Stories & Articles

Shakespeare On Film

Laurence Olivier

Vanessa de Largie | Milk Bar Magazine | July 15, 2016

ACMI in association with The University of Melbourne and The British Council present Shakespeare on Film from Thursday 14th of July to Tuesday 26th of July 2016.

This week, Milk Bar Magazine had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr David McInnis, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The University of Melbourne.

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. ACMI in association with the University of Melbourne and The British Film Institute present Shakespeare on Film. What does this program of new digital restorations mean to you? And why should the general public attend this showcase?
Shakespeare On Film is a wonderful chance to see some absolute classic screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, ranging from giants like Olivier, Zeffirelli and Branagh, to the recent Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and directed by VCA graduate Justin Kurzel.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Melbourne showed that Romeo and Juliet is Australia’s favourite Shakespeare play, which probably has a lot to do with Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s stunning film (1996). The survey also showed that movie adaptations more generally are overwhelmingly the most common way people experience Shakespeare in this country.

Whether you read Shakespeare, watch his works on stage, or see them on film, Shakespeare continues to inspire and be relevant. Being such a familiar and pervasive part of our culture has meant that Shakespeare’s plays were frequently used as the vehicle that licensed cinematic experimentation. In ACMI’s Shakespeare On Film season, you can watch a series of silent cinema versions of Shakespeare – some as early as the late nineteenth century – which were really at the forefront of movie technology and special effects.

Eleven films celebrating the Bard’s work will be screening between the 14th and 26th of July at ACMI. Do you have a personal favourite? If so why?
It’s hard to pick a favourite film version of Shakespeare, even from a shortlist like this…I don’t envy the Film Programs team at ACMI who have taken on this task for Shakespeare on Film! They have made a fine selection, and from that I am looking forward to seeing Ian McKellen as Richard III (and the exclusive on-stage discussion between Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine that was recorded at BFI Southbank in April and will follow each Richard III screening), along with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, and Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths.

But there are so many high calibre actors in Shakespeare films, to say nothing of the visionary directors like Derek Jarman or Franco Zeffirelli. In particular, I’m looking forward to watching Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth again on the big screen – it’s not something that you can watch on an aeroplane or TV. The rugged Scottish landscape is itself an important character in this adaptation; the cinematography is just gorgeous. There is also a post-screening Skype Q&A with Kurzel on 16 July, which joins a handful of other special additions to the film screenings including the abovementioned McKellen/Loncraine discussion, and introductions from key University of Melbourne faculty and visiting academics.

How did your interest in Shakespeare begin? Did you ever envisage lecturing on the subject or was that a gradual progression?
You know, it’s a bit embarrassing – when I was about 13 I read a twentieth-century play that quoted The Tempest as its epigraph, and I went away and read The Tempest so I’d understand why the quotation had been chosen, and I guess I thought that if I just started reading more Shakespeare and gradually worked my way forward in time, that’d probably be a good way to go… but I mostly got stuck reading more and more from Shakespeare’s period and never quite got to the present!

Sixteenth and seventeenth century England really was a golden age for drama and literature more generally, and is such a rich and fascinating time period to study. I think a lot of people get scared off Shakespeare by the prospect of needing to know his works word-perfectly, and the perceived need to understand what every little allusion means. It’s a shame, because Shakespeare was writing popular entertainment, to make money; clearly he was a genius, but enjoyment of his plays doesn’t depend on getting all the references. He was taking old, familiar stories and adapting them for the stage, just as directors now adapt Shakespeare for the screen. He took liberties with the stories, he changed the endings, added characters, changed settings – his interest was basically in a good story, well told.

How can we incorporate Shakespeare more in Australian society? As an actress who has studied Shakespeare in London and seen shows at The Globe, when I’ve returned to Oz, one can’t help but feel that we are lacking? Do you agree? If so what can we do to change this?
Aussie expats who return home from London do sometimes feel like Shakespeare’s undervalued here – but bear in mind that London alone has a population of 8.5 million (about a third of Australia’s total!), so clearly there’s going to be more paying audiences queuing up to see Shakespeare performed, and thus greater opportunity for theatres to flourish.

But I think Australia has a good relationship with Shakespeare – Captain Cook had a copy of Shakespeare’s works on the Endeavour, some of the very earliest stage productions in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were of Shakespeare’s plays, and throughout the twentieth century we’ve seen the rise of such successful Shakespeare companies as the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company, the Australian Shakespeare Company and the Bell Shakespeare Company.

Some of the most exciting productions, to my mind, have been those with strong indigenous presence: Simon Phillips’ ‘reconciliation’ Tempest or the Michael Kantor/Tom E. Lewis King Lear adaptation at the Malthouse, The Shadow King. At the University of Melbourne, we’ve been programming a full year’s worth of activities and events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – ACMI’s Shakespeare On Film season is one of the many exciting things we’ve been doing. For example, we hope people will be interested in coming along to the free Shakespeare exhibition I’ve just been curating, After Shakespeare, which opens at the Baillieu Library mid-July and runs for six months. It explores the adaptations, rewritings and performances of Shakespeare’s works after he died, especially in the Australian context, with items from the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Thank you for speaking with us today, David.

Shakespeare On Film
ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne
Thursday July 14 – Tuesday July 26