Films of the plays

9th May 1997 at 01:00
MORE SHAKESPEARE WITHOUT THE BORING BITS. By Humphrey Carpenter. Viking Pounds 5.99

Styles have changed since Shakespeare, not the substance, and Humphrey Carpenter's witty experiments with "how Shakespeare might have treated the story if he was writing it for us today" enjoyably bear this out.

Lighthearted, irreverent and shrewd, his parodies have a sharp eye for modern journalism, film and entertainment, and he specially favours latter-day flirtations with the Agatha Christie-ish Twenties. Much Ado About Nothing is a filmscript, sub-titled "Two Weddings and a Funeral". Touche; and directors casting Benedick need look no further than Hugh Grant. As You Like It is a friendly lampoon of Salad Days, and has wondrously awful lyrics. In The Winter's Tale the oracle at Delphi is a mix of agony aunt and fortune-teller, and shows how slight the differences are between the three. Cleopatra is Madonna, hounded by the Moon's fearless reporter, Kelvin McBeth. Shakespeare's tut-tutting Roman gossip would certainly have read him.

The tragedies can put Carpenter on shakier ground, with less scope for parody and farce. To include King Lear was a mistake, no play calls humour's bluff more devastatingly.

After working with comic grotesquerie for several acts, it brutally wipes the smile off humanity's face. Carpenter's method cannot cope with that. His Othello, by contrast, is brilliant. Casting Iago as the still, small voice of paranoia, he blends comedy with critical insight, and for good satiric measure neatly links his wife-murderer with America's recent crime of the century.

Carpenter's adaptations do Shakespeare's ghost affectionate service, and his mischievous skits on our life and times are not just good jokes, but passports to the fun of the originals.

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