High marks for animated Shakespeare

November 10, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LONDON -- It may seem vulgar: six Shakespeare plays cut to 30 minutes each and made into cartoons. But "Shakespeare: The Animated Tales" has the support of such arbiters of British good taste as the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Prince Charles.

The series begins with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which premieres at 7:30 tonight on the premium HBO cable service (with repeats Nov. 21, 25 and 27), while also being seen in England on the BBC. "The Tempest," "Macbeth," "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet" and "Twelfth Night" will be telecast monthly on HBO. Six more plays are being planned.

All the world's a stage for this $6 million production, which was born in Wales, abridged in England, animated in Russia and Armenia and financed in Europe, Japan and the United States. Dubbed versions of the series are to be shown in 37 countries, including Russia.

HBO's produced a two-minute introduction starring Robin Williams, whose quirky humor is expected to draw children to Shakespeare.

Christopher Grace, the executive producer of the series, started the project two years ago.

"I saw the possibilities animation could bring to Shakespeare's plays that live action could not," Mr. Grace said, "and a way to get young people interested in Shakespeare."

In what some saw as midsummer madness, Grace and Dave Edwards, the series' producer and director, went to Moscow in July 1990 to explore the idea of working with Russian animators.

"At the time a lot of people said we were crazy," Ms. Edwards said, adding that they wanted a style different from Disney, not to mention a lower price. Soyuzmultfilm, which is subsidized by the Russian government, came in as an equal partner.

Finances dictated that the three-hour plays be trimmed to 30 minutes. Leon Garfield, the author of "Shakespeare's Stories," a children's book, was commissioned to abridge Shakespeare.

"I was very worried at first and astonished that anyone could contemplate doing it in that time span," Mr. Garfield said. "But when I saw the work of the Russian animators I realized that a great deal could be conveyed purely visually."

The plays, packed with witches, fairies, spirits and dreams, lend themselves to animation. Mr. Garfield said each play took several months to trim. "It was like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on a postage stamp," he said.

He tried to keep the mood and structure of the original plays intact. All the lines are Shakespeare's own, though some narration has been added to establish the conflict early and move the plot forward. Soliloquies had to be chopped and some characters, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dropped.

"I tried to use the famous lines where I could as long as it didn't get in the way of the narrative," Mr. Garfield said.

The voice tracks were recorded by actors from the Royal Shakespeare Co. in Stratford-on-Avon and the National Theater in London.

Professor Stanley Wells, the director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, headed an academic panel responsible for maintaining the integrity of the original plays. Anyone who knows the plays well will miss certain lines, but Mr. Wells said he was enthusiastic about the shows.

"I see the animated versions as creative adaptations of Shakespeare, much like the operas and ballets, rather than as a straightforward realization of Shakespeare," Mr. Wells said. "They are not crib notes. They have their own artistic validity and capacity to stimulate the imaginations of those who see them."

Prince Charles, who last year condemned what he saw as the marginalizing of Shakespeare, recently praised the series in a statement: "As president of the Royal Shakespeare Co., I welcome this pioneering project which will bring Shakespeare's great wisdom, insight and all-encompassing view of mankind to many millions from all parts of the globe who have never been in his company before. I am much impressed by the quality of animation and by the fact that such wonderfully talented artists from Russia and Armenia have been involved in this project."

Along with the series, the abbreviated plays are being published Britain by Heinemann Young Books and in the United States by Random House. The paperbacks are to go on sale in American bookstores in February for $6.99. The videos will be out in April for $14.95.

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