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.

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

Nothing Much To Do

Date: 2014
Posted by: Nothing Much To Do
Cast: Harriett Maire (Beatrice Duke), Pearl Kennedy (Hero Duke), Jake McGregor (Benedick Hobbes), Matthew J. Smith (Claudio), Caleb Wells (Peter “Pedro” Donaldson), George Maunsell (John Donaldson), Holly Parkes (Georgia “Verges”), David Hannah (Hugh “Dogberry”), Tina Pan (Ursula), Jessia Stansfield (Margaret “Meg” Winter), Reuben Hudson (Stanley Balthazar Jones), John Burrows (Robert “Robbie” Borachio), Lucie Everett-Brown (Cora Petunia Anderson), Alex MacDonald (Leo Duke)
Credits: The Candle Wasters (Claris Jacobs, Elsie Bollinger, Minnie Grace, Sally Bollinger); sound director Jessi Golding
Duration: 83 videos

BardBox returns, after a four year hiatus, because there is so much good and interesting original Shakespeare production continuing to appear online, and the best of it needs documenting. A prime example is this delightful dramatised vlog the creation of a four-women creative tram from New Zealand called the Candle Wasters. Set in and around a New Zealand high school, it presents a modernised take on Much Ado About Nothing in the form of a vlog, with the various characters taking to the camera to share their thoughts with us.

Above is the first video in the series, in which Beatrice self-consciously introduces herself in standard vlog manner. In subsequent videos we follow the two stories of Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Benedick. In keeping with the multiple-viewpoint approach, there are different YouTube channels for the different characters. Beatrice and Hero share Nothing Much To Do; Benedick (Ben) speaks to us through benaddicktion; and Ursula makes videos for us via the Watch Projects channel. There are also Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Tumblr pages, and so on

This is an exceptional undertaking, absolutely in tune with its times. The parts are winningly performed and the plot and themes of Shakespeare’s plays credibly translated to twenty-first century New Zealand. It makes the transition of the sexual politics of Shakespeare’s era to the preoccupations of modern times seem not too forced, and it finds space for both the light and the dark, even if it is happier when things are happy. Compared to the complicated and rather heavy-handed attempt by the Royal Shakespeare Company to embrace the social media era with its Midsummer Night’s Dreaming of 2013, this seems unforced, a logical way of retelling what Shakespeare has to say, through the media and method most likely to be appreciated by its target audience. It also ably demonstrates how online video can free us from the stage by breaking down the received narrative and exploring its constituent parts afresh. This is why Shakespeare belongs on YouTube.

The Candle Wasters have gone on to translate Love’s Labour’s Lost into Lovely Little Losers, and have promised their own take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, entitled Bright Summer Night, for later in 2016.

The Candle Wasters
Nothing Much To Do YouTube channel
benaddicktion YouTube channel
Watch Projects YouTube channel
Playlist of all episodes
Wikipedia series entry
Other Not Much To Do channels (Facebook, Twitter, Tumble, Instagram etc)

Infinite Monkey Syndrome

Date: 2012
Posted by: James R. Ford
Cast: Not given
Credits: Produced by James R. Ford
Duration: 1.30

A few months ago it was reported that US programmer Jesse Anderson had set up a virtual set of some millions of monkeys (using Hadoop), all of them tying at random on virtual typewriters, and had managed produce something that was 99.99% Shakespeare – the first text to be achieved in this way being ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. Anderson had cut corners however, because every time the random typing came up with words that roughly matched something from the Shakespeare canon then they would be retained, if not then discarded. With this and other constraints, Anderson could achieve his goal. The purely random production of Shakespeare by an infinite number of monkeys remains something for the philosophers and theoretical mathematicians.

Or for a videomaker. This droll piece, made by British artist James R. Ford, is an extract from a 9 minutes 8 second loop (therefore designed in principle to run forever). It shows us a woman in a monkey suit, typing Shakespeare, as the tags to the video tell us, because otherwise we would not know (a photograph of the typewriter on the artist’s website indicates that only gibberish has been produced – so far). Is is a Shakespeare video? I say that it is – and so it is (and just to make the point this post has been tagged with all of the plays and poems). A video to watch, infinitely.

Jesse Anderson explains more about his project on this video:

YouTube page
BBC online news item on Jesse Anderson’s project
Jesse Anderson’s Million Monkeys Project
James R. Ford’s personal website