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The Bard dons biker garb in modern-day ‘Cymbeline’

September 4, 2014

VENICE, Italy (AP) — William Shakespeare is not usually considered the godfather of pulp fiction.

But the Bard’s richly textured characters and high-octane plots become the ingredients of a gangland thriller in “Cymbeline,” which sets the action of the play in an anonymous American city where outlaw bikers battle police.

Michael Almereyda’s movie adaptation takes a troupe of rising stars and familiar faces — including Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Milla Yovovich, John Leguizamo and “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Dakota Johnson — and puts them in black leather for a saga of full of love, violence and revenge.

But the American director says any resemblance to a certain biker TV show is pure coincidence.

“I’ve had people wagging their finger and saying, ‘It’s from “Sons of Anarchy’” because that’s based on ‘Hamlet,’” Almereyda said with a touch of weariness that might just have been jet lag from flying in to the Venice Film Festival.

“And it may be, but that’s a natural conceit,” he added — Shakespeare is inexhaustible source material for movies and TV.

“He’s got over 1,000 credits on IMDB, so he must be doing something that people find is rewarding,” Almereyda said.

The director said the biker genre seemed a natural fit for the tribal relationships and “mythic, almost comic-book archetypes” in Shakespeare’s play about an ancient British king clashing with Roman occupiers.

The film — competing in the festival’s Horizons sidebar — stars Harris as the head of the Britons motorcycle gang, fighting with police while juggling a complex family life. Cymbeline’s virtuous daughter (Johnson) is in love with a penniless gentleman (“Gossip Girl‴s Penn Badgley), while his scheming second wife (Yovovich) and her rapacious son (Anton Yelchin) are embroiled in evil conspiracies.

The script trims but stays faithful to the twists and turns of the play, a mash-up of romance, humor and tragedy that is one of Shakespeare’s less-performed works.

Almereyda concedes that the play is wild, messy and complicated.

“The core of it to me is about men and women relating to each other and mistrusting each other,” he said. “The strands of jealousy and misdirected love and lust and the resulting confusion — that feels modern.”

This is hardly the first time Shakespeare has been given an American accent. After all, “West Side Story” is just “Romeo and Juliet” with singing street gangs. Almereyda set “Hamlet” in modern-day New York in a 2000 movie starring Ethan Hawke.

With “Cymbeline,” the director returns to what he calls “American Shakespeare,” an approach he contrasts to the more formal rhythms of traditional English performance.

“It’s about being unapologetic about, if not our ignorance, our rawness,” he said. “It has to do with a more natural approach, not being bombastic, not being declamatory.”

For the actors, that meant intense work to absorb Shakespeare’s verse.

“I’d be showering and saying my lines, brushing my teeth, going to the toilet — just constantly, constantly saying it and putting it in my mouth so it becomes really conversational,” said Leguizamo, who plays the put-upon biker foot-soldier Pisanio.

The result — coming in at a little over 90 minutes — is vivid and pacy. Trade magazine Variety said the film “dazzles with its colors and textures,” though the Hollywood Reporter felt nothing could disguise the play’s status “as a second-rate ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

Leguizamo — who played Tybalt in Baz Lurhmann’s teen-friendly 1996 “Romeo and Juliet” — said he knew from experience how a film can hook young viewers and “sucker them to like Shakespeare.”

He said that as a teenager he thought Shakespeare “wasn’t for me,” until he saw Franco Zeffirelli’s sensuous 1968 movie of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“All of a sudden I was like, ‘This stuff is so beautiful,’” he said.

For Almereyda, comic books were the key.

“Marvel comics referenced Shakespeare, funnily enough,” he said. “I was a preteen reading Shakespearean dialogue in ‘Thor.’

“It was a sort of midway drug to Shakespeare.”


Follow Jill Lawless at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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