Aaron the Moor

Date: 2015
Posted by: John Frazier
Cast: John Nyrere Frazier (Aaron)
Credits: None
Duration: 2.09

There many renditions of Aaron speech “Indeed, I was their tutor to instruct them” from Titus Andronicus (Act 5 Scene 1), most, though not all, performed by black actors. This is a stand-out example for me. Looming out utter blackness, his face gradually becoming visible yet never wholly so, the unrepentant Aaron confesses to his bloody deeds with as much anger as relish. He continues the speech with Lucius’s reply, “Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?”, ending with an emphatic “Ay, that I had not done a thousand more”. A portentous electronic organ makes for an effective musical background, while the performance begins with the sound of dripping water, suggesting imprisonment.

In or out of the context of Shakespeare’s play (in which Aaron is a grotesque murderer, who will be buried up to his chest and left to starve for his crimes), this comes over as a declaration of vengeance, more particularly the relish in the power that vengeance gives. The implication is that it is the vengeance of blackness against a white world. We are as much in the world of Toussaint l’Ouverture as Titus. The words are powerfully spoken, and though the performance by John Frazier might be too ripe in other circumstances, here it is fitting to its setting. A memorable two minutes.

Links: YouTube page

Everything You Need To Know About The Tempest

Date: 2015
Posted by: Emma Banks
Cast: Emma Banks, Katie Douglass (voices)
Credits: Emma Banks (produced by, directed by, casting, credits, music)
Duration: 7.00 (including 1.20 of bank screen at the end)

Of all the many sub-genres of Shakespearean videos to be found on YouTube, among the most prevalent and popular are plot summaries. These are of two kinds: some make fun of the plays by cramming as much of the story as possible into a short space of time, usually a minute. Others have a more practical bent, which is to explain what is going on to the bewildered. Clearly there are quite a few young students turning to YouTube for some sort of clear guide to who is who and who does what to whom. It’s Lamb’s Tales for the 21st century.

Here’s a typical example, with an inviting title. Shakespeare’s narrative is explained through a series of crude cut-out figures placed over generic picture backgrounds., accompanied by some text and commentary. It does its job well enough, leavening the the practical business of explanation with some world-weary asides and some fun choices of cut-outs – Gollum as Caliban, in particular. Of course, it doesn’t tell you anything about what The Tempest signifies – but that’s another story.

Links: YouTube page

Ophelia drowns

Date: 2011 (2007)
Posted by: Amy L.
Cast: Amy L. (Ophelia)
Credits: Music: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 14
Duration: 6.10

Here’s a particularly strong example of the many Ophelia fan videos to be found on YouTube. That feels the best way to describe them: videos that recreate Ophelia’s death by drowning that appeals to filmmakers/performers who want to emulate her by imitation. In this example a young girl in a white dress wanders through a wooded landscape (in Northern Ontario), following the path of a river. Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata plays. Gertrude’s lines about Ophelia’s last minutes are spoken over the images, as we see Ophelia stumble, cling for a while to a rock, then slip into the water and drown.

The video is interesting for exemplifying a romantic conception of Ophelia, one with which some identify quite intensely. It also interesting for its literalism. It doesn’t just show us the drowned Ophelia; it tries to show us how she drowned. In doing so it teeters on the edge of the absurd, but to judge from the comments that accompany the video some have found its visual exposition useful. The amateur status of the video, with its faltering technique, makes the Ophelia’s tumbling into a stream close to ridiculous, while at the same time convincing many in its audience through its sincerity. As one comment puts it, “That creek is BEAUTIFUL. I’d drown there. I mean, if I were to drown, that’s not a bad place to be.” The video exemplifies Ophelia as death wish – not something to be indulged in, but as a satisfying fantasy.

The video is dated as 2011, but it appears originally to have been published in 2007 with an introduction by the filmmaker/performer that has been removed from this version and is no longer available on YouTube.

Links: YouTube page

Twelfth Grade (or whatever)

Date: 2016
Posted by: Liv Belcik, S Messing and S-messing Around!
Cast: Sarah Taylor (Viola/Sam Messing), Kristen Vaganos (Liv Belcik), Julian Hermano (Oren Douglas), Derya Celikkol (Tammi Belcik), Jon Steiger (Drew Aguecheek), Adriana Figeuroa (Maria Waites), Evan Neiden (Malcolm Volinsky), Andres Cordoba (Vic Caius), Justin Linville (Curt Slender), Eliot Barnhart (Sebastian Messing)
Credits: Quip Modest Productions. Jules Pigott (head writer/director/editor), Uma Dwivedi, Angela Farooq, Sarah Goodwin, Lee Hittner-Cunningham, Daisy Murphy and Julia Reinstein (developers), Simona Riccardi and Shannen Michaelson (assistant directors)
Duration: Ongoing

This is excellent. Right from the start of the opening episode, in which a kazoo-playing Oren tells us of his favourite bands, then confesses to his room mates that he is utterly in love, one senses a confident directorial hand and a witty retelling of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s own opening has been simulataneously acknowledged, parodied and used as the steeping stone to an original conception.

So, yes, it’s another another web series designed for those who “like Shakespeare and awkward teenagers” (as writer-director Jules Pigott pithily puts it). The set-up is familiar: students using vlogs to share their thoughts with the online audience, with multiple viewpoints achieved through different YouTube accounts in the names of the characters, social media spin-offs and so on. There’s a plot-line that riffs on Shakespeare, so that Oren = Orlando, Sam/Viola = Viola, Liv = Olivia, Malcolm = Malvolio, Drew = Andrew Aguecheek, and so on. The main business involves Viola disguising herself in an all-boys’ school and falling with love with jock Oren, with a range of secondary characters, some with Shakespearean roots, some invented, who flesh out and enrich the narrative. The twists and turns of young love are credible enough, the contrivances (such as characters using other people’s cameras to post vlogs) no worse than Shakespeare was guilty of, and the characters’ frankness combined with naivety is of our age.

What makes this series stand out is the style. The need for the characters to confess to cameras (usually, though not always, in their bedrooms) both constrains and defines such productions, but the production takes every opportunity to play imaginative variations on the theme. So we get musical interludes, conversations held while all we see is a video game being played by the speakers, intercutting between different people’s vlogs, characters answering viewers’ questions, even one episode that takes place completely in the dark. Even the eye-catching variety of their titles pleases (Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Representation of the Ego in Media, Unreliable Narrator, Oren Plays Kazoo for Five Minutes). There is also a satisfying narrative arc, showing as much control over the series as a whole as its individual elements. The performances from the young cast are uniformly good, with lightness and darkness of tone equally well handled.

Twelfth Grade (or whatever) is written, edited and directed by New Yorker Jules Pigott, who engagingly and illuminatingly and rapidly explains how the series is made in the above video. One sees the huge dedication involved, from preparing the scripts, to co-ordinating the performers, to editing and uploading the videos, to keep the social media streams going. And all this for around 1,000 views per episode. That suggests that this is not being done simply for the likes, tweets or followed, but because those involved believe in what they are doing. It’s what separates art from mere opportunity.

This is the second Shakespeare series from Quip Modest productions – the first, Like, As It Is (based on As You Like It), I have yet to see, though apparently it is an apprentice work. Twelfth Grade (or whatever) shows how Shakespeare functions as a stimulus to the imagination, letting ideas fly. It has enough of a debt to Shakespeare’s play to cause smiles of recognition, but it is never weighed down by the association. It has its own special story to tell.

Links:
Complete episode list
Quip Modest Productions tumblr site
Twelfth Grade (or whatever) on Twitter
Jules Pigott’s personal site

Kate the Cursed

Date: 2014
Posted by: Kate Minola
Cast: Emily Lubbers (Kate Minola), Julia Buchan (Megan Carpenter), Bryan Versluis (James Wright), Jenna Harman (Britt Minola), Devon Peacock (Hudson Vanderberg)
Credits: Golden Moose Productions. Created, written and directed by Emily Lubbers and Zoe Lorenz
Duration: 30 episodes

Here’s another web series updating Shakespeare to the milieu of the twenty-first century vlogging teenager. In this case it is The Taming of the Shrew, somewhat loosely adapted to give us the point of view of Kate Minola (“your average high school pessimist”), whose friend Megan encourages her to set up a vlog. Kate’s dilemma is that she doesn’t much like people, but her younger sister Britt is not allowed to date unless Kate does so first. The story is then fleshed out soap-wise by bringing in assorted friends and classmates, including James (a soft Petruchio).

Kate the Cursed (great title) is the creation of two Canadians, Emily Lubbers and Zoe Lorenz. It is slickly produced, plausibly scripted and convincingly performed by its young cast. It suffers from the limitations of the pseudo-vlog, because everything must be told through confessional statements to camera that are nearly always in the teenagers’ bedrooms, and there’s only so much textual analysis you can indulge in by looking at the objects they have on their walls. A restrained use of jump-cuts alleviates the sameiness of the shooting style somewhat, and some key scenes take place on a woodland vacation. But it is still people talking to camera, relentlessly, which inevitably palls (though one is not expect to watch such a series all in one sitting).

It has the usual literary web series spin-offs, including Twitter handles for the lead characters, Tumblr sites and Facebook account, and one can only be amazed at the energy and dedication that goes towards production these amateur epics. What does it tells us about Shakespeare’s play? In its way, quite a lot. Its aim is to make Kate understandable and the mistress of her own drama. She steps out of the play to talk in the language of her audience. On the Golden Moose Productions website there are some illuminating statements on why they chose Shakespeare over, say Jane Austen, to structure their series:

Another reason why we did Shakespeare over a full length novel is that there is more freedom with Shakespeare. In a novel, there are set plot points and with Shakespeare you pretty much just have the dialogue. So you can sort of take it to mean what you want.

That’s as good an argument for the Shakespeare adaptation as you could hope to find. Its meaning becomes your meaning. Kate the Cursed is not the best Shakespeare web series out there, but does show why this is such a valid and vital way of interpreting Shakespeare.

And it’s nothing like 10 Things I Hate About You.

Series trailer

Links:
All episodes on YouTube
Golden Moose Productions Tumblr site

Macbeth Summary

Date: 2012
Posted by: benben8it
Cast: Ben Todd (commentary)
Credits: Bed Todd (artwork)
Duration: 3.41

Here’s a gem of a summary of Macbeth from cartoonist Ben Todd. It’s the usual quick run through the play’s highlights, turning tragedy into quickfire comedy, but making the plot clear for anyone struggling with iambic pentameter. It’s mostly done with simple static doodles, which seem artless at first sight but which have a peculiar charm about them. The black and white is occasionally interrupted by splashes of red blood, a cheesy photograph of Scotland, and great use of one of the most renowned of all YouTube videos, the five-second Dramatic Gopher, hilariously brought in as reaction to the news that Macduff was born by C-section. It’s fun to watch, but it also makes you think. Life, it tells us, is just a procession of exits and entrances, stabbings and survivals, in which there are only happy endings because we do not know what happens after those endings.

Links:
YouTube page
Ben Todd’s Pencil Poetry Tumblr site

SHAKES

Date: 2014
Posted by: SHAKES
Cast: Victoria Smith (Beatrice), Ellis Oswalt (Benedick), Anna Stone (Ophelia), Tim Childers (Hamlet), Cathy Koch (Juliet), Cody Sparks (Romeo)
Credits: Writer/Producer/Editor: Kathryn Orsmbee; Writer/Director: Destiny Soria; Production assistants: Rebecca Campbell, Katie Carroll; Marketing: Nicole Williams; Dramaturg: Clare Thomson
Duration: 12 episodes plus two extras

It is interesting to see what has been happening to the online Shakespeare video over the past four years. In 2012 I stopped adding to this site because I thought it had gone on long enough and there wasn’t much that was new that I thought I could add (I returned in 2016). In part the aim had been to trigger academic interest in an area of Shakespeare film production which wasn’t being considered at all, at least not with any seriousness. But gradually people were starting to take a serious interest, which culminated in the first book on the subject, Stephen O’Neill’s knowledgeable and stimulating Shakespeare and YouTube: New Media Forms of the Bard (2014). But what I hadn’t realised was round the corner, and which O’Neill missed, because the phenomenon was only just starting as his book went to press, was the Shakespeare web series.

It was the great success of the Emmy award-winning web series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012/13), with its setting of Pride and Prejudice in modern times told through the individual characters’ vlogs, with social media spin-offs, which sparked a small explosion in web series which treated other literary properties in the same way. Here was a sparkling way in which to use the special features of the online world to bring the classics to a new audience. It was also great fun to produce, as is clear from the spirit of enthusiasm that leaps out from the dozens of these kinds of web series that have now been produced.

Many of these series are adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve listed the main ones in a new Web Series category on the right-hand column of this site, and I’ll be posting something on most if not all of them, in time. I’ve already written about Not Much To Do and Lovely Little Losers, produced by the premier exponents of this new Shakespearean form. But coming close behind them, and with a slightly different apporach, there is SHAKES.

SHAKES is the creation of two Americans, Kathryn Ormsbee and Destiny Soria. It started out as a web series entitled Shakes that mashed up characters from Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet, featuring modern characters living in the fictional American town of Shakes. When they decided to move on to a second series, the first was renamed The Town’s the Thing, with the second given the name Weird Sisters.

The Town’s the Thing shows us the interaction of three couples: Beatrice and Benedick, Hamlet and Ophelia, and Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Nothing Much To Do, which follows the path set by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries in telling the story through direct addresses to the camera (vlogs), The Town’s the Thing is a more conventionally composed drama, without any confessional moments to us the audience. The six main protagonists are a group of friends with different backgrounds (Hamlet’s a lawyer, Benedick is a journalist, Beatrice runs an online news service, Ophelia works in a pharmacy, and so on), with traits that link them loosely to their characters as Shakespeare imagined them (though Juliet as sassy kleptomaniac seems more removed from the original conception than some).

The technique and performances are a little faltering at times (though you can see them learning as things go along), but the overall conceit is capably maintained. The story moves comfortably between comedy and tragedy (with sprinklings of Shakespeare’s words every now and then). The overall effect is to shed new light on Shakespeare’s appeal, as a creator of archetypes whose perennial qualities are proven by how adaptation into this very early 21st-century form seems so natural. A delight to the imagination.

Date: 2016
Posted by: SHAKES
Cast: Channing Estell (Fiona), Melanie White (Octavia), Beth Posey (Tabitha), Alec Beiswenger (Jack), Matthew D. Whaley (Hector), Garrett Bass (Mark)
Credits: Writer/Producer/Editor: Kathryn Orsmbee; Writer/Director: Destiny Soria; Production assistants: Rebecca Campbell, Katie Carroll; Marketing: Nicole Williams; Dramaturg: Clare Thomson
Duration: Ongoing

The follow-up series, Weird Sisters, is more confidently filmed and performed than the first series. It features a new cast and a change of style, with much more camera-consciousness, the central conceit being that the story is being filmed by social psychology student Imogen, with the characters providing her with vlogs. It describes itself as a loose adaptation of Macbeth, focussing on three women roommates – a radio broadcaster, an artist and a law student, each of them residents in the town of Shakes – who gradually reveal that things are rather stranger than might first appear, as they admit to their connections with the supernatural. Having established that they are modern versions of the three witches, the connection with Macbeth rather fades away, which is a disappointment – and a missed opportunity. The series is ongoing, so maybe more connections with Macbeth will emerge. It would give the work more direction and purpose.

These web series productions represent a consideration commitment from amateur teams on a minimal budget, and are reinventing Shakespeare. That’s quite an achievement, and more of us should be taking note (sadly Weird Sisters has attracted few viewers so far). It’s just worth remembering that the more use you make of Shakespeare, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Links:
The Town’s the Thing play list
Weird Sisters play list
SHAKES website
SHAKES YouTube page
SHAKES Tumblr site