Shakespeare on Film: A Dramatic Account

Queen's University lecturer and theatre practitioner David Grant on the Bard's lesser known adaptations and our changing approach to his timeless texts

It is something of a cliché to suggest that if William Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing film scripts or adding to the high tragedy content of EastEnders. In fact, as senior drama lecturer at Queen’s David Grant, who has helped organise the current Shakespeare film season at the Queen’s Film Theatre, suggests, the Bard is already on celluloid. In obvious places, like the great movies of plays such as the Olivier Hamlet, and some less obvious ones.

'The 400th Shakespeare anniversary is a bit macabre as it’s marking his death date,' Grant observes over coffee in one of the cafes on the Ormeau Road. 'The British Film Institute decided to put together a special programme and my colleague Mark Burnett, a specialist in the interpretation of Shakespeare on film, was consulted.'

David Grant, whose CV includes a rather interesting sounding role as 'Kenneth Branagh’s man in Northern Ireland', also became involved. On Saturday, June 28, My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s left field interpretation of the Prince Hal and Falstaff story, will be shown in the Brian Friel Theatre at QFT. Before the screening, Kurt Taroff will give as talk about issues of adaptation.

This film is one of the not so obvious adaptations of the Bard. Yet when Grant first saw the cult 1991 film, he had a sudden moment of cultural recognition. 'I thought "It’s Henry IV, Part 1.", he says. 'Some critics didn’t make the Shakespeare connection as the film doesn’t advertise the fact. But there is also, to a lesser extent, Henry IV, Part 2 in there, with the rejection scene.'

As Grant notes, Van Sant updated the story of the privileged guy who hangs out with a rough gang, here headed by the tortured rent boy Mike – a magisterial performance from the late River Phoenix.

'It’s a demanding film and sometimes seems fragmented. There isn’t an Aristotelian overarching narrative line and it’s darkly lit.' But it is indubitably based on the universal story of somebody who has to sacrifice friendship and indeed love (a distinct homo-erotic charge runs throughout) to fulfil his destiny. We’re not talking royal responsibilities, though, as this is an American film. 'It’s not about kings but Scott is the son of a wealthy man.'

The language has changed too. 'There is a very famous soliloquoy when Hal says he is going to repent and likens himself to the sun. It’s all about image and in the modern version, the character just says "I’m going to wise up."'

However, Grant’s favourite film adaptation of Shakespeare remains Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. 'On the one hand, he shredded the text, but on the other, he removed the descriptive material and realized Shakespeare’s heightened vision. He used a twentieth century voice.'

The Shakespeare drama that links the university lecturer with Northern Ireland’s most celebrated actor and director is another history play, Henry V. Grant met Kenneth Branagh during his time directing the Ulster Youth Theatre in the ‘80s.

'It was through the NICVA and because Kenneth came from Belfast, as his name grew, he received lots of charity requests. Out of the blue, when Henry V came out [in 1989], I heard he wanted to come to Belfast and put on a fundraising event.

'It happened at the QFT and he didn’t just want to do a screening, he wanted to act some scenes from the play. Branagh was married to Emma Thompson at the time. When we met, he said he wanted to do Look Back in Anger and I asked whether he had a director in mind. He replied "Yes, Judi Dench.'" Released that same year, the videotaped Thames Television production featured Mr and Mrs Branagh and was a critical success.

Grant, whose encyclopedic knowledge of British theatre practice is impressive, goes on to share an anecdote about one of the twentieth century’s greatest Shakespearean actors, and a kind of forerunner of Branagh, Laurence Olivier.

Laurence Olivier

When asked about the point of playing Romeo on film opposite Vivien Leigh in 1947, the actor explained: 'It’s so that people in the provinces who would normally go to the cinema go to the theatre, and people in London who would go to the theatre go to the cinema.'

As Grant tells it, Branagh more or less reinvented the Shakespearean canon on celluloid. And that’s true, if you consider masterful updates like Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. He has given us some definitive film versions.

There are various questions to be answered when putting on Shakespeare post-New Millennium. One of them is to do with the script and the way his works were performed in the sixteenth century at theatres such as The Globe. 'When Patrick Tucker, a consultant when The Globe was being constructed, was asked whether the theatre should have a rehearsal room, he researched the subject.'

What Tudor came up with was surprising. He discovered that in another Elizabethan house, the Rose Theatre, actors would routinely do six performances a week in the season, always in the afternoon when it was light. 'When did they have time to rehearse?' Grant asks. 'The hypothesis is that the actors did plays they hadn’t performed before and that they set their own rules and read their own lines, which contained cues to tell them how to give the line. If somebody says "and there is Juliet", the actor speaking knows she’s on the other side of the stage and reacts accordingly.'

It was, as Grant explains, a very physical, oral culture of theatre. 'The line about torchlight in Romeo and Juliet tells the audience, who are in daylight, that it’s night. Shakespeare has to point out specific visual images.'

I'm also informed that the famous Prologue in Henry V isn’t an anticipation of Brecht’s alienation technique, but a directive telling the audience how to react. So the 'muse of fire' is our imagination revving up as the beautiful pentameters unfurl.

Grant’s career covers all types of theatre, over the years producing Brian Friel and other significant dramatists like Owen McCaffrey. 'I remember doing Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Lyric Theatre and the actor Ruairi Conaghan, who was a terrific Gar (public),' he says.

Now the stage specialist is rehearsing a musical in Letterkenny. 'It’s the story of the Unified Textile Plant who took over from Courtaulds in the 1960s but closed in 1975. They were a big local employer, and we’re hoping there will be members of the audience who may have worked for them and know about the particular legacy. It’s proving a lot of fun.'

Audaciously, I ask Grant, who went to Cambridge, what he perceives the point of drama to be as an academic subject. His answer is illuminating: 'People who want to become actors will go to drama school but for people interested in studying theatre, it may help them decide what they want to do.'

We can’t part without mentioning the topic on everybody’s mind; the European referendum. 'In terms of the economics of the theatre,' he says, 'the peace process funding from the EU has helped the arts, although that's about to expire. The question of the North/South border (mentioned by the Remain camp as a reason to vote in) isn’t relevant as the border has never existed for artists.'

He concludes citing the Footsbarn Theatre he previously linked up with and the way their peripatetic productions always seemed to coincide with revolutionary moments in European history – 'The Velvet revolution, the fall of the Berlin wall.' Undoubtedly, drama likes to remain outside the establishment and like Shakespeare's art, stirs things up.

BFI's Shakespeare on Film season continues with My Own Private Idaho at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast at 7.00pm on Saturday, June 28. To pre-book tickets visit To see what other events are still to come go to