I owe everything I know about Shakespeare to Baz Lurhmann

I’m only seventeen. The continued popularity of Shakespearean adaptations is a great thing for young people.

When people ask me to name a single individual who has become the bedrock of our culture, Shakespeare always springs to mind. His plays have been around for over four centuries, and despite the copious number of productions and films based on his plays, nobody seems to be sick of them yet.

I am not a Shakespeare obsessive. However, it is difficult to grow up in the UK without knowing his name, why he’s famous and the names of several of his plays. Almost every British school pupil has studied at least one of them and I am no exception, having read The Tempest when I was 13 and studied Romeo and Juliet to ridiculous lengths for my English Literature GCSE.  This is no bad thing. Being able to quote Shakespeare and understanding how he has shaped out literary culture is an advantage many people are glad to have.

But it’s not only from studying the plays that so many young people know the stories so well. For instance, I’ve never read Twelfth Night, but I can quote from it: 

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”

Why is this? Because I’ve grown up in a generation where we appear to have learnt most of what we know about Shakespeare from modern adaptations of his works. For example, Walt Disney’s film The Lion King (1994) was very popular when I was growing up; it didn’t cross my mind until I read the child-friendly version of Hamlet that there were parallels between the two. Fundamentally, the only difference is the “Disneyfied” ending of The Lion King, compared to the heartrending tragedy of Hamlet. The fact that Shakespeare was able to inspire a Disney film nearly four-hundred years after his death shows the impact that his stories have had on generations ever since.

I can quote from Twelfth Night thanks to the 2006 film She’s the Man. This is more obviously inspired by Shakespeare; the characters have the same names as in the original play; Viola is the lead character who falls in love with Duke Orsino while pretending to be her twin brother Sebastian. The setting of Illyria is transferred to an American high school, rather than a kingdom, but the basics are still there. It’s similar to the way that The Taming of the Shrew was modernised in the film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Adapting the Bard’s work in such a way is a good thing; it helps young people engage with Shakespeare; makes the task of understanding his stories far less daunting, and therefore far more enjoyable.

When studying Romeo and Juliet, I was terrified at the prospect of having to analyse some of its complicated language. I found Baz Luhrmann’s take on Romeo and Juliet (1996) an absolute godsend as it made use of the original Shakespearean language, but it was placed in a modern setting (California) which helped me to better understand the story. Joss Whedon appears to have approached his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which is due to be released this Friday (14 June), in a similar way. Having seen the trailer, I am fascinated by the fact that it is in black and white, as this is yet another way of making the film stand out from other adaptations of the same play.

This seems to me to be the beauty of Shakespeare: his plays are timeless. People are still finding ways to make them appeal to audiences; the subjects of his plays that are still relevant in this century most likely will be in the future as well. As time goes on, more modernisation will occur and inevitably new ways of adapting his work will become apparent. There are already theatre productions that approach his plays from a historical perspective, i.e. with an all-male cast, as was the case in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Applying that idea to a film adaptation would be another of many ways that a director could make a Shakespeare plot their own. Shakespeare's plays are proof that the slightest variation of an existing idea can make the world of difference. 

Baz Lurhmann is just one of many directors to take on the challenge of modernising Shakespeare. Photograph: Getty Images
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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge