Another of those random charity shop bargains was this double DVD sets of modern Shakespeare adaptations – ShakespeaRe-Told (I bet that was a smug day when that title was revealed!). The first disc features rewrites of Much Ado About Nothing by David Nicholls and Macbeth by Peter Moffatt shifting the plays to a modern context and employing starry ensemble casts.
Much Ado About Nothing has been relocated to a local news station in Dorset where Sarah Parish’s Beatrice is reunited with former colleague Benedick, Damian Lewis sporting an epic moustache – who never quite got round to getting together when they worked together before – on the news desk of Wessex TV. Hero is the weather girl, daughter of the station manager, newly engaged to Claude on the sports desk though Don from Visual Effects has been nurturing an epic crush on her too and so sets about a dastardly plan to break up the engagement.
The newsroom actually works really well as a concept: the inanity of much of local news provides endless comedy moments, the preening vanity of the warring anchors an amusing addition to their characters, and the studio set-up offers an ingenious way to play the gulling scene with hidden microphones. Lewis and Parish spark off each other extremely well especially in a lovely scene studying the deeper meaning of a Shakespearean sonnet and as the younger lovers, Billie Piper and Tom Ellis are sweetly and nerdishly convincing. Derek Riddell’s glowering Don works well as a modern villain, more of a direct rival to Claude for Hero’s affections, which gives him stronger motivation and there are other tweaks to the plot which make it work surprisingly well.
Dogberry’s unfortunate business is limited to him being a security guard who has video evidence which should save the day and so becomes much less annoying than in the play. And a perhaps more realistic take on Hero and Claude’s relationship post-fiasco is given with a much great sense of ambiguity present about what the future holds for them. The compression into 90 minutes means several of the supporting characters are lost which is a shame, but Olivia Colman as a chirpy Ursula and Nina Sosanya’s sluttish Margaret are well played. So, an interesting and well-judged opening to this four-strong series.
The second adaptation is Peter Moffatt’s take on Macbeth, set in the high-pressure world of a Michelin-starred restaurant and starring James McAvoy as Joe Macbeth, a sous chef with burning ambitions, fuelled by his wife Ella who is the Maître D’, and a fierce resentment of head chef Duncan Docherty who has built his celebrity reputation by taking credit for Joe’s work. In some ways, this is a tougher play to adapt as it has a strong element of the supernatural threaded through it in the presence of the weird sisters which is difficult to translate effectively. Moffatt makes them binmen which at least gives them a reason to keep returning to the scene but isn’t entirely successful at making them hauntingly prophetic.
What does work though, is the move to the testosterone-fuelled environment of a top kitchen. The intense camaraderie and rivalry between these men replaces the military ties from the original most successfully, as the cut-throat ambition constantly rises to the top. Joseph Millson (in unforgivably long and greasy hair mode here) as Banquo is a rare voice of reason but crushed by the manipulative Macbeths, Keeley Hawes in particularly fine form as a malevolent Lady M but one whose character is more fully sketched out through the explicit repeated mention of the loss of a child, clearly a pivotal moment for her. It’s also fitting that she gets a proper death scene, which amps up the tragedy more.
You have to love a show that make a sex object out of even fine actors and I don’t think anyone will complain that McAvoy’s first scenes are shirtless and in leather trousers and he is frequently in states of undress throughout. He makes a fine anti-hero though, the Scottish brogue tripping nicely off his tongue (of course!) and he’s been equipped with a nice line in dry humour – there’s a great in-joke about Gordon Ramsey. Altogether though, I’m not 100% sure that all the strands of this adaptation work: the incorporation of the MacDuffs doesn’t really work for me, Peter MacDuff (Richard Armitage) is the Head Waiter rather than kitchen staff and so ends up feeling a little shoehorned in as the one who is most aware of the Macbeths shenanigans yet ends up paying a terrible price. But it is a witty take on the classic overall and I did like the extra levels of richness he added to the Lady Macbeth character.
The DVD also contains a set of interviews covering each of the four adaptations: most of them are entertaining enough, giving insight mainly from the writers about the challenge of updating Shakespeare but rather oddly, the Macbeth is mainly about the Out of Joint production that had been playing around that time and hardly at all about this actual version.