An Interview with Russell Jackson
Darren Kerr
De Montfort University

Kerr, Darren. "An Interview with Russell Jackson." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 5 <URL:

At the centenary Shakespeare on Screen conference in Málaga, Spain, in September, 1999, Russell Jackson gave the opening plenary. Afterwards Darren Kerr asked him the following questions.


DK It has been a hundred years since the first filmed Shakespeare. Could you explain what you meant in your opening lecture when you said we were collectively arriving at what the topic is?

RJ The 'topic', as in how we can study Shakespeare on screen in the same way that, a few years ago, the study of Shakespeare in performance began to gel, or, some would say, congeal, into a series of topics, attitudes and ways of bringing the different things together. That's what has changed a lot. Books like John Russell Brown's in the sixties were pioneering works on studying Shakespeare in performance. Something similar is happening to Shakespeare on screen.

DK If it has taken this long where has the difficulty lain in considering Shakespeare on screen?

RJ Film studies in the sixties, seventies and eighties was the pioneering area for the acquisition of difficult jargon. English studies limped behind it in that respect and in a way there has been more of a coalescence of the two at the same time that theory is beginning to take a bit of a back seat. I think we are beginning to find ways of talking about Shakespeare on screen in ways that impose Film and English Studies on each other.

DK So is this a beginning or and end to how we are to critically approach Shakespeare films?

RJ I don't know which it is. It just feels like we are beginning to define what the topics are, define the ways in which we talk about them and are losing our inhibitions. I think it is most notable when people from outside of academia ask you questions about Shakespeare films, journalists, say, who expect to speak to a purist based in Stratford, about a version of Macbeth set in a laundry. What they would like to hear is, "Oh my God that's outrageous!" but now most of us would say, "I'll wait 'till I see it."

DK We have come from silent photoplays to representations of a 'Shakespearean' world in Baz Luhrmann's film and Shakespeare in Love. Where do you see there still being the space for originality in putting Shakespeare on screen?

RJ I think originality lies in the scope for variety, and the fact that now you cannot predict what any Shakespeare film is going to be like in terms of setting and so on. I work with Kenneth Branagh a lot and I know that he has never wanted to set anything in the Elizabethan period. In Henry V, Phyllis Dalton's costume designs were brilliantly done because the problem arises with medieval settings that one doesn't want the actors to look as though they're in fancy dress. What is achieved is a modified historical realism. The tendency now is to move into different periods and see different conjunctions. We've just done Love's Labour's Lost set in 1939.

DK As a musical?

RJ Yes.

DK How is it going to work?

RJ I'm not going to tell you [laughs]. Wait and see.

DK Well if it's not Branagh's suicide attempt then is it tongue-firmly-in-cheek so as to escape a critical mauling?

RJ You never escape a critical mauling. Kenneth's always wanted to do Love's Labour's Lost as a musical, with an element of pastiche to it, because it does correspond to certain aspects of the play. I mean the ideas about the daft things love makes us do, so that people suddenly bursting into sonnets -well we burst into song in our version. I won't anticipate more than that. On the first day of rehearsals we all did a read through, a discussion, they all had to learn to sing and dance at least one of the numbers, everybody in the room, including myself, and then at the end of the afternoon we had a screening of Top Hat. Everybody said, "My God we can't do that." It was the start of a long process of hard work. The screening was a way to remind ourselves how good we had to, not so much imitate, but evoke. I wouldn't see any of these choices as having anything to do with Branagh responding to the critics. You get used to the fact that you don't do things to address yourselves to some kind of critical opinion. You try to make stuff people will enjoy and take something away from it. It's as simple as that. He [Branagh] doesn't work in terms of "Well, they didn't like Frankenstein, maybe they'll like this." You can't. Otherwise you'd get nowhere.

DK Have you experienced disappointments with the finished product in your role as academic adviser?

RJ There are always projects where you wish you'd done X instead of Y, but that's true of anything. Being an "academic adviser" in relation to some artistic endeavour isn't quite like being an "academic" for normal purposes except for those moments when being in "academic" mode helps the actors feel more secure. The main idea is that I'm there with Ken and the actors to work on the text -- or rather, the script -- and there may be moments when my background and training may be useful in a very specific way. I may also, sometimes, even point out that there's another word from another text that we could use. I've never known anyone to read footnotes like actors.

My job is to take on the vision of the play and work towards that and like anyone on the project you sometimes feel you didn't quite get it. It's true of anything. The big difference with a film is that in the theatre, and this is very important, there is always a tomorrow night. In film there isn't a tomorrow, in the sense of another chance to do it right, and what you've ended up with is going to haunt you whether you like it or not. So you walk away. Walk away is very important. There'll be another one.

DK You say you work on a script not a text. Do you think that Shakespeare on screen should seek to make stronger use of the visual over the verbal?

RJ I think there is room for both. The problem with Shakespeare in the cinema is that there is too much talk. You just wish people would stop bloody talking. It was strange doing Hamlet where we had said at the beginning of the project we would do all of the lines, maybe more, which was unusual and interesting to do. Whatever the result is. For most cinematic purposes, most cinematic adaptations, certainly the ones I've worked on, the text gets cut to at least thirty per cent. And actually you don't need it. I remember the sound person on one film I worked on who is looking at me and throwing his hands up, because in Shakespeare they just don't stop talking.

DK Where would you situate the BBC productions which obviously elevate the 'language in performance' in a visual medium?

RJ The BBC productions were not filmed theatre though they were necessarily more theatrical than cinematic adaptations because the sources and demands for television were different. The BBC productions were televisual like the plays [on tv] of their time.

DK How do you think film copes with Shakespeare's dialogue?

RJ Somebody once said that film dialogue is overheard rather than heard and I think that's something you can't really do with Shakespeare. The difficulty is that Shakespearean dialogue is made to have a major performative effect in the medium that it was originally written for. The dialogue is part of the Elizabethan theatre. Dialogue carried a great many things in that theatre that it cannot and must not carry in film. I think that's where you get problems about, for example, rhetoric and the level at which things are pitched. Not a matter of volume, but of how 'up' the performance is: how it's pitched. I think that's something difficult to adjust for the camera.

DK Which films do you think have achieved an effective use of visual images without losing sight of the importance of the word?

RJ I hope we achieve that.

DK Which film are you most proud of then in relation to this?

RJ I'm particularly proud of Hamlet. There are fifty things I'm very proud of and six things I'm not so keen on... and a couple of things I wish we hadn't done but I'm not going to tell anybody what they are. There are moments when I think "That's right": Old Hamlet's statue at the end being bashed to bits is one. I like the opening establishing shot when the camera moves and you see the whole of Blenheim (even though I never want to see Blenheim again after spending two weeks standing outside in February at night in the bloody snow). I also like the opening sequence of Much Ado. It tells a story very well, sets up a degree of excitement and anticipation, and it's a little bit tongue-in-cheek about the men. Amongst other films, I like Baz Lurhmann's Romeo and Juliet. It's a very exciting, funny and witty and very moving film. When I saw it I was conscious that it wasn't a film that was addressed to me but I still got a lot out of it.

DK What do you consider as the most visually striking examples of Shakespeare on screen?

RJ I love the cavalry charge in Olivier's Henry V and think it's one of the great Shakespeare films. I think Welles is an absolute giant. I think that the inventiveness and cheekiness of Welles was amazing. One of the great film experiences of my life was Kosintzev's Hamlet which I saw when I was at school. I was bowled over by the image of a complete repressive and utterly functioning society Kosintzev had crafted in that film and films that make it [Elsinore] look like a place of oppression. Kenneth Tynan said of that film that Kosintzev realised that the most important thing about Elsinore is that it's run like a massively successful hotel. I don't like Olivier's Hamlet in that way; though it's visually impressive I find it a bit of a dead end.

DK What interests you about Shakespeare on screen? It can hardly be the storyline.

RJ What I'm particularly interested in is how a whole world is created, from which the story will emerge. It's that which film makers really work on best. If you get it right you can have reservations about the story but when people [i.e.actors] start speaking you hope it won't be a let down. It's something many Shakespeareans would never admit : that in a good Shakespeare film the words, at least, seem as good as the pictures.

DK Do you think cinema is pushing Shakespeare back into the realm of popular entertainment?

RJ I hope so. It was at the end of the nineteenth century that William Poel and Granville Barker took Shakespeare back to the theatre he originally wrote for and away from the commecial popular theatre. Now although there were a lot of people intensely interested in making Shakespeare for popular culture -- one would include Lilian Bayliss in The Old Vic in this -- it has to be said that the wedge was driven between Shakespeare and what was generally available in the theatre. Now there is no way that what Henry Irving did at the Lyceum was exactly like the melodramas at Drury Lane, but there was a lot those kinds of theatre had in common: visual excitement predominating over textual completeness for one thing. Acting that was visually effective and operatic in its intensity and selection of moments. These great spectacles were accompanied by music. These were very powerful and part of popular culture, for all their infidelity to the originals they drew on. I think that is something we are getting back towards, and that's not in a retrogressive sense, just in the sense that people are saying Shakespeare can be relatively popular entertainment. One has to keep this in perspective. None of the Shakespeare films that have been made in the nineties have been very expensive films. Not really. Most of them, the major exception being [Luhrmann's] Romeo and Juliet, have not made enormous amounts of money. So when they have 'gone big' it's a wonderful bonus. The films don't feel now as excluded from popular culture as they used to feel. In other words big popular films and Shakespeare films used to be further apart than they are now.

DK What do you anticipate of the forthcoming Titus?

RJ No idea. I know at least one person who is in it and is quite rightly secretive about it.

DK Are you surprised it's taken so long for a big screen version of the story of Titus to reach us? It seems to have everything mainstream cinema demands.

RJ I don't think I am. The point has been made that the tragedies have predominated, comedy is much harder to do on film, but for Titus I think its coming now is down to a number of productions of Titus in the theatre that have made it more viable. It's got a higher profile than it did have. Plays come and go this way. Stratford scheduling, for example, is based on box office viability which produces its major funding. There are 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' plays and Titus used to be a 'D' play and it's probably gone up to a 'B.' What's that mean in real terms? It means that you will probably get Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet most certainly as 'A' plays and so get many frequent new productions of those plays, too many new productions you might say because they can be banked on. King John you can really whistle for in the big theatre, in Stratford, unless somebody really big says they'll do it. Some are in the middle, Measure For Measure has moved up and these things constantly change. The fact that Titus has moved up that viability ladder in terms of the way the Shakespeare-going public perceives it will give filmakers more confidence in using it. The difficult thing with Shakespeare or anything that has had a theatrical origin is that you have to get away from that to see whether it is going to make a good script. It's very hard. But at least people are prepared to give it a try. You will wait a long time though for a film about King John. At the end everybody is miserable, no-one gets the girl and no-one is buddies.The pull of genre is interesting in this respect. There is no disrespect to Branagh's Henry V to say that that becomes very much a - well, buddy movie's a rather deprecating term, but it becomes a film about a group of people coming together doing something successful despite obstacles. It's a formula that is very winning, very comforting and very enjoyable but one also recognises that it also is a simplification.

DK Okay finally it's time for fantasy Shakespeare league. Who would you like to have seen collaborate, past or present, on a Shakespeare film?

RJ I mustn't think too long about it. I would like to have seen Olivier get his Macbeth made. I find this very hard to answer and the reason is that almost anything is possible now. I think that there is a lot of good will among actors towards Shakespeare projects because actors don't make a great deal of money from them. They make peanuts. They tell their agents to walk away. They do. They like the work and they like the working conditions. This does mean that anything might be possible and one of the processes that you go through, that I've been involved in, only in the sense that like a lot of other people I've been shown a list and asked "What do you think?," is that you do this fantasy football of casting. "Could we have Woody Allen as second gravedigger" and it does sound absurd and you say "Yeah we'll try." And it may or may not work.. I think that I actually like the fact that anything might happen. I think of film directors whose general way of working I would have like to have seen applied to Shakespeare. I don't think Hitchcock would have been one because I don't see how Hitchcock would ever had wanted to do it. I don't know, someone may say he had a secret desire to film As You Like It with Rosalind as a blonde woman being attacked by sheep in a phone box, but I doubt it. I think I would have liked to have seen something Shakespearean by Truffaut because I think the quirkiness and the wit and sophistication. I think of Truffaut, who was a disciple of Hitchcock and an admirer of Hitchcock, as a sort of -- well, nicer version of Hitchcock in many ways. I would like to have seen a Shakespeare by Truffaut, or Chabrol, those would have been on my list. I'm sorry Godard thought he could do King Lear. Never mind. I think on the other end of the scale Buñuel would be interesting given the right play. (Titus Andronicus, perhaps?) And I think that when yes, there are qualities you admire in a director and there's a play that they could use and something would come good of it I like the idea of a Shakespeare film as a film that could only have been made starting from Shakespeare. You might end up with four hours of the whole text of Hamlet or you might end up with Romeo and Juliet by Baz Luhrmann, or you might end up with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy but the Shakespearean ingredient was a major element in making a good film and that's what I'd like, I think.

DK If you had to choose?

RJ Oh, I think Truffaut directing one of the comedies, Truffaut's All's Well That Ends Well where there is an element of difficulty which would be a pinch of salt in the thing. As for casting, almost anyone who worked with Truffaut I would like to see again.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).