You’d think I’d have a better answer to the question, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” — but it’s complicated.
I have favorite lines, of course; favorite speeches, favorite characters. But as beautiful and complicated as Shakespeare can be on the page, for me he lives and dies on the stage, and like all rich banquets, his plays are not always beautifully prepared. So rather than favorite plays, I have favorite productions, ones that bring Shakespeare’s texts to life in very successful and specific expressions.
Some of my favorite productions (onstage or onscreen) include:
Love’s Labor’s Lost, directed by Vivienne Benesch, Folger Theatre, 2019. I’ve written at length about this production, about how the director found an emotional path through the verbal undergrowth of this famously wordy and discursive play. The cast brought an incredibly light touch to some of Shakespeare’s most tortured wordplay, like stones skipping lightly across a lake, and revealed the sparkling romantic comedy lost amidst the obscure classical allusions and Latin puns.
Pericles, starring Nigel Terry, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989. Though I knew nothing of Pericles when I walked in, I walked out convinced it was Shakespeare’s greatest play. Staged in the RSC’s intimate Swan Theatre, it had the power of proximity and was by turns thrilling and incredibly moving. I immediately went home and read it, searching for the particularly transformative moment I’d just seen in one of Pericles’ soliloquies, and discovered to my astonishment — it wasn’t there. Whatever had moved me in that moment was not in Shakespeare’s words but in Terry’s expression of those words in the RSC’s rousing “boy’s adventure” approach to the text.
Richard III, starring and co-written by Ian McKellen, 1995. This is the film version that places Shakespeare’s tale of the 15th-century monarch in an alternate 1930s England that looks more like Nazi Germany. The challenge of presenting any history play is identifying the various loyalties and factions; while Shakespeare’s audiences knew their Yorks from their Tudors, modern audiences sometimes struggle to tell a Richmond from a Buckingham in authentic period clothing. McKellen’s conception of a World War II-era fascist Britain presents Richard as a dictator on the rise, and through production design and casting, clearly makes the opposing forces visually distinct while presenting an intelligent and accessible reading of the text.
Richard II, starring Ben Whishaw, 2013. Arguably the jewel in The Hollow Crown miniseries, this straightforward and faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s text becomes, through the miracle of casting (especially Whishaw in the title role), a thrilling and intelligent — and, dare I say, definitive — version of this infrequently performed play.
The Tempest, co-directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 2015. This production emphasized Prospero’s “rough magic” and, with illusions created by the silent half of the magicians Penn and Teller, could easily have felt gimmicky. But with a live band performing songs by Tom Waits, a Stephano and Trinculo who were genuinely funny instead of merely “funny” in theory, and a two-headed, eight-limbed Caliban played by two actors, this production felt absolutely complete and of a piece. I feel like I don’t need to see any other production of The Tempest because I’ve seen this one. (I will, of course, though. Obviously.)
And do I have favorite moments? Oh my goodness, yes:
Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, 1996. This version succeeds for me in ways similar to the McKellen Richard III, in that it so wonderfully translates Shakespeare’s text into modern images. What made me literally gasp out loud was the moment where, as Romeo is dying, Juliet starts to stir. In that play I think I know pretty well, I genuinely believed in the possibility that, this time, tragedy might be averted.
Henry V, directed by Kenneth Branagh, 1989. A great version of a great play, the scenes with Emma Thompson as Katherine, the French princess, are filled with charm and humor — especially when Katherine says, “I cannot tell,” and a frustrated Henry responds with, “Well, can any of your neighbors tell, Kate? I’ll ask them.” Branagh gives it such a funny and contemporary-sounding delivery I genuinely laughed out loud (decades before the abbreviation LOL became a thing) and went flying to the text to see whether he’d improvised it. Nope: except for the “well” (which Branagh added), it was exactly as Shakespeare wrote it 400 years ago.
Twelfth Night, The Globe Theatre, 2013. In this all-male production, Mark Rylance as Olivia spins the simple question “How now, Malvolio?” into one of surprise (for her) and delight (for the audience), when she sees him in cross-gartered yellow stockings for the first time as the words are coming out of her mouth. The line became “How now, Malvoli — OH!” and I (along with the rest of the audience) roared.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 2019. I’m told by people who saw this immersive production live that it’s one of their favorite versions of this popular play. I watched it as part of the National Theatre Live series of filmed stage productions shown in cinemas, and in the climax of this interpretation’s Act One, when, to the strains of Beyoncé’s glorious “Love On Top,” two creatures consummate their lust (‘twould be a spoiler to reveal which ones), I wept uncontrollably from comic joy. (Play the song now, as part of the Bridge Theatre’s curated show playlist on Spotify, and feel some of the joy yourself.)
I definitely have a list of most personally influential Shakespeare plays. The Tempest has served as both totem and inspiration for my adaptation of Frankenstein, and inspired many of the themes, narrative arcs, and characterizations in my script William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged). Hamlet not only inspired an entire play — Hamlet’s Big Adventure! (a prequel) — but I’ve written and memorized more parody versions of “To be or not to be” than I’ve ever performed the lines as they’re actually written. But despite Hamlet’s influence and greatness — or maybe because of it — I can’t remember the last truly great-on-every-level production I’ve seen. The play is so rich, so filled with fascinating characters, and so long, every production is almost by definition doomed to forever strive towards, but never quite achieve, a fully satisfying experience.
But my favorite Shakespeare play? I usually just take the easy way out and say The Comedy of Errors. Why? ‘Cuz it’s the shortest.
What are your favorites?