Friday, September 17, 2010
The Bard and the Mouse
I recently attended the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of All's Well That Ends Well. It is not one of Shakespeare's better plays. The central plot is about a woman named Helena, who falls in love with Count Bertram, who rejects her. Helena succeeds in curing the King of France of an ailment with the help of a medical secret left to her by her late physician father. As a reward, she is given the choice of any man in the kingdom. She chooses Bertram. Bertram, though, runs off to Florence, resolving to never accept Helena as his wife until she can produce his ring on her finger and his child inside her. Helena pursues her Count and discovers that is seeking to bed Diana, the daughter of an innkeeper. Helena manages to switch places and gain Bertram's ring and baby. So we have a lead female character defined by her supposed intelligence and her willingness to throw herself after a man who neither wants nor deserves her. Bertram is someone who spends the entire play being a complete louse yet nothing bad actually happens to him. At the end of the play he is humiliated, but for some strange reason is now in love with the cause of his misfortune. I find this more problematic than anything in Taming of the Shrew.
There is one bright spot in the play in that, like all Shakespearean comedy, All's Well features a great comic side character, the foppish and cowardly Parolles. Parolles gets a deliciously naughty back and forth with Helena at the beginning on the uselessness of virginity and, later on, is tricked by his comrades into believing that he has been captured by the enemy and promptly agrees to sell out his own side. All's Well is worth it simply as an exercise in how Shakespeare relied on side characters, usually of relatively base origin, as comic relief and commentary on the higher born main characters. Parolles is essentially Falstaff of Henry IV parts I and II and Merry Wives of Windsor. Much Ado About Nothing has Constable Dogberry and Midsummer's Night's Dream has Puck and Bottom. All of these characters, in the hands of the right actors, are quite easily capable of taking over their respective plays.
There is another institution in modern times that does this, Disney. From almost the beginning, when Disney started to make full-length animation films, it worked on a model of taking well-established stories, adding in a few musical numbers and some wisecracking sidekicks. Pinocchio got Jiminy Cricket, a cat and a fish and Cinderella a band of talking mice. Flash forward to the more recent era of Disney animation, Little Mermaid gets a talking crab and a pair of henchmen eels; Beauty and the Beast gets talking dishes and Aladdin, a monkey and a parrot. It is almost always these side characters who are the most interesting parts of the film to the extent that the films would not work without them even though they are not that important to the actual plot.
Considering all this, it is surprising that, with the exception of Lion King (Hamlet in the Sahara, complete with an evil uncle, a murdered king, a dithering hero and a ghost), Disney has not ventured to do Shakespeare. I, for one, would be curious to see what Disney could do with Midsummer's Night's Dream or The Tempest. Then again, considering what they did with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, maybe not.