Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t say I’ve ever been a Shakespeare fan. After studying many of his works throughout high-school and college (what was I thinking taking English Literature at A Level?!), I haven’t read any of his plays or sonnets since.
However, now, actors-turned-documentary makers Giles Terera and Don Poole, have, on a four year journey, taken it upon themselves to help others see the highly-acclaimed (and rightly so, to be fair) playwright in a different light and turned the results into Muse Of Fire (for those unfamiliar, a title taken from Henry V).
Actors who have taken on some of Shakespeare’s most famous roles on stage have been tracked down and (no doubt politely) asked to share their thoughts. Those who offer them up in this 83 minute documentary include Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley and everyone’s favourite British man of the moment, Tom Hiddleston – generations of thespians are united in their love for one of this country’s greatest individuals.
What helps the movie appeal to those who dislike Shakespeare however is the fact that many, including Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, admit to being daunted by his works the first time they took them on. As Sir Ian McKellen so simply sums it up:
“To do a play that was written 400 years or more ago is a difficult thing.”
The fact of the matter is, that so often with writings, they need to be read aloud, performed and played out in order for those studying them to truly grasp what it is that the pages they’re turning are trying to say.
There’s an honesty and a realness to the entire documentary, helped greatly by video footage of Poole and Terera having car trouble, driving for 16 hours at a time and generally looking exhausted as, little by little, their ambitious plan starts to come together – truthfully, you can’t help but root for them to succeed. And most notably, you HAVE to admire them for the determination and effort they put in when it comes to securing interviews with the likes of Dame Judi Dench (send me ANY cake and I’ll happily talk that’s for sure) and, as the documentary draws to a close, Romeo & Juliet director Baz Luhrmann.
The impact on Shakespeare as a result of it being part of the UK curriculum plays a big part, with plenty of scenes featuring members of the public asked to share their memories of the plays they studied in the classroom – Macbeth, Othello and Romeo & Juliet being the top 3. But, it’s refreshing to learn that even well-established Shakesperian individuals and performers also struggled with it, as Ralph Fiennes admits:
“I got an E for English at A Level – I didn’t know how to answer a complicated question about King Lear.”
Taking in Elsinore castle in Denmark (yes, it’s a real place) where the audience are treated to an interview with then-Hamlet Jude Law, the Globe theatre in London and even a Shakespeare workshop at a prison in Germany, MoF is a trans-continental look at the thoughts of the wider society on one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived.
There have been so many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, and that alone is confusing enough for many, but, as highlighted in the film, it also opens up a world of theatrical opportunities for those who choose to help bring his writings to life. As Jude Law says:
“Shakespeare is different in its ability to be reinterpreted.”
There truly is no right or wrong way to study Shakespeare, need it be on the stage or on the page, but society has, in an issue deeply explored at various stages throughout the documentary, often felt threatened by the weight of his words – despite them being just that – words, and little more. Yes, what he wrote is still relevant today; his plays feature ambition, greed, love, jealousy and death, but all he did was write, and what Poole and Terera challenge viewers to think about is ‘why are such words so frightening and daunting, when we write and speak so often ourselves?’
Baz Luhrmann summarises exactly who Shakespeare was with one simple line that is ultimately one of the most thought-provoking:
“Shakespeare isn’t some distant God, he was a guy.”
As the pair return to London to reflect on everything they’ve seen and heard during their four-year adventure, they make a speech about Shakespeare and his impact on society both then, and now. Such a speech, like the film, won't appeal to everyone, but certainly their closing words resonated with me long after I'd put the DVD away, and I hope, as I believe they do too, they'll stay with other viewers for a long time as well. So, what was it they said?
“Meeting Shakespeare might be a little scary, but so is life...take a deep breath and go for it.”