I grant that when I saw it in the Netflix queue, I was not a happy camper. ShakespeaRe-Told, modern renditions of Shakespearean classics. Oh, fine, I thought. Video CliffNotes, the very thing.
Blaap, wrong. In fact, they are wonderful. Well: there re four. One of them is wonderful; two are pretty good, and one is a passable entertainment. Still, they've done something I wouldn't have thought possible: they've taken four Shakespeare plays and refashioned them as modern entertainment that work.
The point is, they are clearly not just a set of CliffNotes. All four of them would work as least passably as comic/romantic entertainments even if you didn't know a word of Shakespeare. Throw in the sly riffs and random bits of homage and you've got something that works at least twice.
I think the best of the four is Much Ado About Nothing--partly, I suppose, because I have a special affection for this play, which I think is often underrated. But also the plot--who would have guessed it, a Shakespearean plot--can be turned, with only a minimum of trimming and turning, into a perfectly straightforward straight-to-video movie. Good acting doesn't hurt. The direct Shakespearean riffs are tactful but funny. And they've had the good sense to take the most discomfiting aspect of the story--the public humiliating of Helena, followed by her instance and reconciliation--and simply scissored out the impossible part. No excess of loyalty here.
Macbeth also worked pretty well, set in a kitchen, with lots of barbarous Scotsman and plenty of knives. It was a bit slower in getting started, I thought, and it tended to wander a bit here and there. But the witches are something else (grant that the witches need to be something else to make any production of Macbeth a treat).
Taming of the Shrew was fun to watch--that's two comedies in a row about couples who fall in love via trash-talk. The only obvious problem is that the play itself is so over-the-top that it is almost impossible to parody. And finally-- Midsummer Night's Dream: I thought the rendition here was least successful. All those fairies and lovers and rude mechanicals--maybe there is just too much going on for easy reworking. The odd thing here may be that the most successful part was the Theseus and Hippolyta (Theo and Polly) replay--an elegant bit of bittersweet midlife romance, only barely hinted at in the original.
Still, I came to scoff and stayed to pray. I didn't l think they could do it, and they did. I see by the Wiki note that they did the same kind of trick a few years back with Canterbury Tales. Now, I wonder if we can get that in the Netflix queue.