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

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