Shakespeare Gone Wild

January 15, 2016

One way to inject new life into the Bard’s timeless plays: put some big stars in them!

Patrick Stewart Macbeth Patrick Stewart in Macbeth (Gielgud Theatre, 2007)

In 2007, the former Captain Picard took the London theater scene by storm with a daring production of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s best known (and bloodiest) tragedies. Instead of being set in medieval Scotland, the play was transported to a far more nightmarish version smack dab in the middle of the Cold War. Much of the action took place in a military hospital, the three witches were portrayed as nurses, and characters wielded machine guns instead of swords. When Macbeth reached his unfortunate end, the actor playing Macduff paraded around the stage with his head on a bayonet. The production proved so popular that it was later filmed and broadcast on the BBC in 2010.

Ian McKellen in King Lear (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2007)

The guy who played Gandalf in all of those Lord of the Rings movies teamed up with the Royal Shakespeare Company to stage a production of King Lear that was so chaotic that many critics didn’t know what to make of it. The show featured thunderous organ music, the cast running around in elaborate opera costumes, and random sound effects like thunder and gunfire. Even weirder, in the scene when Lear goes mad, McKellen tore off all of his clothes and appeared completely nude.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet (Barbican Theatre, 2015)

When it was announced that Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch would play the troubled Danish prince at this London theatre, the play quickly became the fastest selling in the city’s history. The production itself took one of Shakespeare’s lines literally. In an early scene, Hamlet’s says “the time is out of joint” so Cumberbatch and his fellow actors wore costumes and used props from various historical periods. In one scene, he listened to a chilling Nat King Cole song on a record player. In another, he stormed around the stage in a David Bowie T-shirt. Before each performance’s intermission, the actor playing Claudius threw open a window and the set was flooded with an avalanche of volcanic ash that remained in place until the blood-soaked conclusion.

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