Having won applause for its updated version of “The Canterbury Tales,” the BBC modernizes a quartet of Shakespeare plays and comes away with an intriguing but not entirely successful four-week experiment. Shakespearean scholars may be able to savor how elements have been reworked and reconsidered, but shifting the stories into the modern space — minus the Elizabethan prose — essentially creates original movies of varying quality. Topnotch casts make the enterprise moderately watchable, but this midsummer night’s trifle has a little too much method in its madness.
On paper, at least, the idea sounds promising: Four separate projects by Brit TV auteurs using Shakespeare as the jumping-off point: “Much Ado About Nothing,” updated by David Nicholls (“Cold Feet”) to focus on rival TV anchors; “Macbeth,” with Peter Moffat reimagining “Joe Macbeth” as a top chef, receiving prophecies from a trio of garbage men; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” from Peter Bowker (“Viva, Blackpool”), in which former hippies celebrate their daughter’s engagement; and Sally Wainwright’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew,” with a starched politician (Shirley Henderson) being wooed by Rufus Sewell.
Clearly, the writers have considerable fun digging into this material, and the casting of “Blackpool’s” Sarah Parish and Damian Lewis (“Band of Brothers”) renders the opener, “Much Ado About Nothing,” a modest if rather slow-going treat. As envisioned, Beatrice (Parish) is a co-anchor on “Wessex Tonight” whose lascivious co-star suffers a heart attack. The solution: Recruit ladies’ man Benedick (Lewis), with whom she had a fling years earlier.
Meanwhile, the show’s sportscaster. Claude (Tom Ellis). and weathergirl, Hero (Billie Piper), become involved, leading to a series of mix-ups and misunderstandings that cause Beatrice and Benedick to rekindle their relationship, each having been led to believe that the other is still carrying a torch.
Even a toned-down Parish remains alluring, and Lewis is well cast as a likable rogue. Beyond their interplay, however, the story proves sluggish.
The other installments are also somewhat hit-miss, with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set for Aug. 20, the best of the lot. It features Bill Paterson and Imelda Staunton and captures some of the original’s sense of whimsy. A pervading sense of darkness that borders on oppressive characterizes “Macbeth,” highlighted by an especially nice turn by Keeley Hawes as Lady (or here, Ella) Macbeth. “Shrew,” meanwhile, is a bit too over the top, with Sewell playing a drunken lout whom the shrill Henderson agrees to marry because her political minders decide that having a spouse will soften her public image.
Give the BBC credit for the sheer ambition in mounting these productions and daring to deviate from the text, but truth be told, they’re the sort of offerings that even sophisticated viewers will be tempted to watch with one eye while perusing the Sunday newspaper.
Shakespeare in almost any form can be entertaining, but when it comes to tinkering with the originals, apparently, the play’s still the thing.