Sunday, 2 September 2012

Strange Shakespeare Casting Choices

Today, 2nd of September, is Keanu Reeves’ birthday. So, this got me thinking about actors who may not seem obvious choices for a Shakespearean adaptation, but were cast nonetheless.

1. Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

It's hard to imagine Ted 'Theodore' Logan
having an interest in Shakespeare
Mr Reeves, of course, played Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 production of Much Ado About Nothing. This film also starred Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton, and it was clear  that the producers, Samuel Goldwyn, were seeking both box office and Oscar success. Surprisingly for a Shakespeare film, Much Ado About Nothing did make for a considerable box office draw. However, it was snubbed at the Oscars (the first of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations not to receive a nomination).

And, as it turned out, the use of ‘big’ Hollywood names may have backfired, because much of the criticism the movie received was focused on the questionable casting, particularly of Keanu Reeves, who was awarded the Golden Raspberry (Razzie) for worst supporting actor.

2. Mel Gibson in Hamlet (1990)

Something tells me Mad Max is
not 'to be or not to be-ing'
Now known, predominantly, as a hard-drinking wackadoodle, Mel Gibson was, in 1990, the hard man of Mad Max and Lethal Weapon fame, so Franco Zeffirelli’s decision to cast him as the introspective, procrastinating Prince of Denmark strikes as a rather strange one.

Nevertheless, the film met with mainly positive reviews, and Mel Gibson shocked many with his portrayal.

In this writer’s opinion, his performance is strong if lacking in a little depth. However, the good news for Mel is that a role and film that could have made him the target of much mockery, was pulled off with dignity. It seems he was saving the opportunity to make a fool of himself for a later date.

3.  Mel Smith in Twelfth Night (1996)

Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones
in their sketch show Smith & Jones
Trevor Nunn’s marvellous adaptation of Twelfth Night was successful on both sides of the Atlantic. And Mel Smith’s portrayal of Sir Toby Belch is a real highlight.

In reality, he is a very versatile actor and director, but at the time of filming Twelfth Night, Smith was best known as one half of the anarchic sketch comedy duo Smith and Jones.

Of course, his comedic talents are exactly what made him so great for the role. Nevertheless, his casting may have seemed like a risky choice to some.

4. Russell Brand in The Tempest (2010)

Russell Brand undoubtedly has the intelligence
and comedic talent to play Shakespeare
In some modern, stuffy views of Shakespearean theatre, where emphasis is placed on RP (received pronunciation), the less than dulcet Essex tones of Russell Brand may seem like an abomination.

Brand’s role as Trinculo in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest received mixed reviews from both audiences and critics. For many people it is the irrepressible Dame Helen Mirren that keeps the whole ship afloat.

For me, Brand does nothing really wrong in his performance, except perhaps try a little too hard. Given his dandy flair, he is, arguably, a fine choice for many Shakespearean roles, King Lear’s Fool or Feste come to mind.

Is it Good to Shake Things Up?

All of the examples above reinforce the notion that Shakespeare was not just written for a few snobby, elitists. Nor was it meant to be performed exclusively by actors with perfectly formed vowels. In my opinion, it’s good to shake things up a little, to cast actors who would not normally be deemed the ‘type’ to play Shakespeare. And in doing so, filmmakers open the door to Shakespeare for a whole new audience that may never before have considered sitting down to watch a Shakespeare adaptation.

So, although I’d advise Keanu Reeves to leave well enough alone, I’m always excited to see casting choices that might, initially, seem strange.

I’ll leave you with one final peculiar bit of Shakespeare casting, although this one is not quite for real. Nevertheless, it would be interesting and extremely amusing to see the complete version of this Hamlet….don’t you think?

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