If you live in the U.K. and are a fan of the TV show Horrible Histories then I bet you were excited to see the cast finally on the big screen in the movie Bill, a comedy based on the early life of Shakespeare. If you live in the U.S. and have no idea what I’m talking about, chances are you had no idea this move even existed. Conversely, if you live in the Reno area, like Shakespeare but not comedies based on his life, chances are you skipped this movie. This is evident from the picture below. For a community that boasts a yearly Shakespeare Festival, the support this movie received was nonexistent. What a shame as this turned out to be a very enjoyable film.
On April 11 Cinemark Theaters hosted a one-night only showing of Bill. Selected Cinemark movie theaters across the country screened the movie as part of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This is the same movie house company that participates in one-night only live broadcasts of the Globe Theater. This is how I was able to see Hamlet live a few months back. Thank you Cinemark!
I, unlike many of my fellow local Shakespeare fans, will attend almost any production that has an association to the Bard. This is why Monday night I spent the evening enjoying a bit of silly British culture.
For those unfamiliar with the British series, Horrible Histories a brief note of explanation is fitting.
Horrible Histories (HH) ran from 2009-2015. The show was a series of silly skits designed to teach school children a little about history and a lot about satire. The show was a hit and the franchise expanded to include games, books, magazines, live theater productions, and educational material. Adults became big fans of the series as well because, unlike American children’s entertainment, Horrible Histories is smart and at times, subversive with subtle adult humor thrown in. Think Monty Python lite as it is obvious the model for HH was Ripping Yarns. And, if you are unfamiliar with that, well you have a lot of catching up to do.
Back to Monday night. A friend, who I am happy to report, is learning to really like Shakespeare, and I made plans to have dinner before heading to the movie. And, like all good groundlings, I enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner. If it was a proper theater I would have enjoyed another glass. America, what we really need are old fashion serving wenches! Hell, crusty ol’ wine stewards would work too.
As we entered the theater my friend jokingly made a comment about us being the only ones in attendance. I laughed, but as we turned towards the seats we were shocked to find that there was only one other person in the theater! For a moment I wondered if the management would cancel the viewing. We were joined by one other person, an older man who must have been lost because when the movie started he got up and left.
The plot revolves around Shakespeare’s very early days in London. To be specific, his first few weeks in London and the events that “led to his discovery”. Queen Elizabeth has invited King Phillip of Spain to England in order to secure the return of Richard Hawkins. As a way of showing that England “has the finest culture”, she demands that one of her courtiers write a great play after he boasts about being a the best playwright in all of England. Meanwhile, Phillip plots to use the play as a “Trojan Horse” in order to kill the queen (“not a real horse” he has to keep explaining to his inept assassins).
The plot is as silly as any of Shakespeare’s early comedies; for those who know their Shakespeare, the in-jokes are a lot of fun. Bill, as he is known, is a lute player in the “Mortal Coil” troupe. But, after rocking out one too many times, they kick him out and tell him to “shuffle off”. Actually the music is quite good; I hope there is soundtrack to the movie. Being a failed musician, Bill sets his sights on writing and the London stage.
What makes this movie so enjoyable is the writing and silly situations our players find themselves in. There are nods to Monty Python, Star Wars, and of course, quotes from Shakespeare’s plays. What would have made this movie even better was if Shakespeare had only quoted Shakespeare, as the real joy came at the end when “Shakespeare”, having found his “voice” gives a speech that was a mash-up of some of the best lines of his plays. My favorite Shakespeare moment comes when he is giving advice to the players, Hamlet style. Had one of the players asked if he could play a lion, I would have really lost it.
The movie moves along quickly, with one-liners and jabs coming at the audience at a steady pace. This works in a comedy yet doesn’t allow for the audience to capture the whole thing; between the quips and background antics I felt we might have missed some good stuff. It’s definitely a movie worth a second viewing. But maybe that’s the point. The producers certainly know that one reading or performance is never enough when it comes to Shakespeare. There are many layers to his work; there is something fresh every time we revisit his world. And if we get the chance, another viewing this movie will bring new delights to giggle over.
If you live in the U.K. and have not seen the film you are in luck. It’s due to be released in DVD form this month. For those of us outside of the U.K. we can only hope HH understands we know the movie’s the thing and uses it to catch the conscience of a whole new audience.
Christopher Marlow: Saying things in a short snappy way instead of a long drawn-out way is the soul of wit.
Bill Shakespeare: You mean brevity?