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BBC updates Shakespeare

Owen Gibson, media correspondent
Tuesday March 15, 2005
The Guardian


The BBC is hoping to bring Shakespeare alive for a new generation after signing up a string of well-known faces including Rufus Sewell, Stephen Tompkinson and Billie Piper to star in a series of big-budget adaptations of the Bard's plays.

The hour-long dramas, which follow the successful template laid down by transplanting Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales to the modern day, will be shown this autumn on BBC1 in prime time as part of a Shakespeare season.

Following a plea from Michael Grade, the BBC's chairman, for more "ambition" in BBC drama, and with an eye on the debate on the future of the licence fee, the corporation hopes to focus attention on its reputation for high-quality original productions rather than ratings winners such as Holby City.

The BBC is remaking The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream in its first Shakespeare adaptations for 15 years. If they are successful more plays are likely to get the same treatment.

Sewell, who has just finished making The Legend of Zorro with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas, will star as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Shirley Henderson will play Kate, an opposition MP told to find herself a husband to make herself more electable. Twiggy Lawson, the former model, and Tompkinson will also star.

Damian Lewis, the British actor who made his name in the Steven Spielberg mini-series Band of Brothers, will play Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing as the anchor of an early evening regional news show. His co-presenter, former lover and now arch-enemy, Beatrice, will be played by Sarah Parish, who recently appeared in BBC1's Blackpool.

Billie Piper, who also appeared in one of the Canterbury Tales adaptations and later this month will star as Doctor Who's sidekick, Rose, said last week that she had landed the role of Hero in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play, adapted by the screenwriter Peter Bowker, will be set in a holiday park.

James McAvoy, who most recently starred in the Channel 4 comedy drama Shameless, will play Joe Macbeth, an award winning chef, in a version of the play transported from the Scottish Highlands to a high pressure kitchen. Keeley Hawes, star of the BBC1 spy drama Spooks, will play Ella Macbeth.

Shakespeare's plays have been regularly transplanted to modern settings on stage and screen, with mixed results. Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Hollywood version of Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was credited with enthusing cinemagoers about Shakespeare and more recently Levi's used dialogue from A Midsummer Night's Dream in a TV ad campaign.

Laura Mackie, the head of the BBC's drama series, said: "There have been modern versions of Shakespeare before but these new interpretations remain true to the originals.

"At the same time, they are a very personal take by each writer - our aspiration is that they work on their own terms for a modern audience."

The adaptations will accompany a Shakespeare season across the BBC's TV channels, radio stations and websites.

They will also link up with the Shakespeare Schools Festival to organise a one-off event on the evening of July 3, when 400 schools will perform abridged versions of the plays in 100 theatres around the country.



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