Robert Jackman

Shakespeare on screen: 8 unmissable adaptations

Shakespeare on screen: 8 unmissable adaptations
Jessie Buckley and Josh O'Connor in Romeo and Juliet (National Theatre)
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The National Theatre’s made-for-screen production of Romeo and Juliet (currently available on Sky Arts) has been delighting theatre-starved Shakespeare fans over the past week. Starring Josh O'Connor and Jessie Buckley this intimately shot film version of the Shakespeare play makes for perfect viewing for an audience starved of both social contact and theatre. 

If you’re in the mood for more of the Bard, and can’t wait until theatres reopen, here’s our pick of the best film adaptations.

A Midsummer’s Night Dream (2016), BritBox

With a judicious trim of the text, the ever-wonderful Russell T Davies turns Shakespere’s classic comedy into the perfect prime time romp. Whether it’s the campy fascism of Theseus’s court or the sitcom larks of Quince’s am-dram players, everything seems so Shakespeare, yet so RTD, at the same time. While Maxine Peake excels as the vampish Titania, it’s Matt Lucas’s Bottom who really steals the show, with immaculate clowning that rivals anything seen in RSC history. Doctor Who fans, meanwhile, will whoop with delight at the sight of fan favourite Bernard Cribbins.

Othello (1995), Amazon - to rent

This faithful adaptation of the Bard’s classic tale of manipulation holds an unlikely honour: it was the first time that a black actor played Othello in a major film adaptation. Laurence Fishburne (riding high on his acclaimed performance as Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It?) is the man who steps up to the plate, putting in a suitably weighty performance opposite career-Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh. British director Oliver Parker channels Basic Instinct in his attempts to steam up those bedroom scenes.

King of Texas (2002), Amazon Prime

If you’re looking for a decent Shakespeare adaptation, the presence of Patrick Stewart is about as reliable an indicator as you can get. RSC junkies, though, may have missed this rare gem: a period adaptation of King Lear set in the short-lived independent Republic of Texas (1836 - 1846). By submerging Shakespeare’s lines in Old West vernacular, screenwriter Stephen Harrigan (a Texan history buff himself) inadvertently foreshadows Deadwood: the celebrated frontier-era series (which debuted two years later in 2014) praised for its nods to Shakespearean dialogue.

Julius Caesar (1953), Amazon - to rent

As unlikely as it might seem to modern audiences, the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony actually raised eyebrows in certain quarters, with critics fearing that the man nicknamed ‘the Mumbler’ for his turn as Stanley Kowalski might not have the gravitas for the role. Seventy years on and the naysayers find themselves on the wrong side of history, with this version of Julius Caesar - also starring John Gielgud as Cassius - widely regarded as amongst the best of the golden-era Shakespearean adaptations. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, younger brother of Herman, directs the action.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Amazon to rent

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon gives the Bard’s best-known romcom a self-consciously indie feel, opting for a minimalistic modern Californian setting combined with a fashionable grayscale palette. In less-talented hands, the suave Killing Kittens vibe to the various parties could have reduced the play to a glorified perfume advert. As it is, this outing is a sheer delight. The stand-out performance comes from Amy Acker as the cocktail-downing, eye-rolling Beatrice, who offloads the best lines with a sardonic sass that would impress the Bard himself, let alone her sparring partner Benedick.

Shakespeare at the Donmar (2016), BritBox

Currently available on BritBox, the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare trilogy (comprising Henry IV, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar) stands out as the high-point in British theatre’s decade-long obsession with ‘gender-inverted’ Shakespeare. Dame Harriet Walter is the name at the top of the bill, as she takes on the roles of Henry IV, Prospero and Brutus respectively, with the three great power struggles reimagined as taking place in a women's prison. After a successful run in the West End, the three plays transferred to New York.

The Merchant of Venice (1973), Amazon Prime

Considered by many aficionados to be the quintessential adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, this 1973 American film revives a hit National Theatre production staged three years later. Future Old Vic boss Jonathan Miller sets the tragicomedy in the late 19th century, using the period’s characteristic suspicion of Jewish wealth to underline a more sympathetic portrayal of Shylock. The great Laurence Olivier gives a powerfully subtle performance as the ostracised moneylender, while Jeremy Brett (known for his definitive turn as Sherlock Holmes) plays the debt-ridden Bassanio.

Macbeth (2015), Amazon Prime

First the good news: this gory and star-studded adaptation of the Scottish Play is indeed rather good. The bad news, on the other hand, is that its anemic performance at the box office - grossing just $16 million against a $20 million budget - means that it casts a shadow over the commercial viability of future Shakespeare adaptations. Still, if a blood-splattered Michael Fassbender purring some of the finest lines in literature as he treads across the misty Scottish moors sounds like your thing, you will be in your element here. Rugged indie favourite Paddy Considine and dual-language (French and English) stage star Marion Cotillard take on the other main roles.