BritWeek to Kick Off With 'Murder, Lust & Madness,' a Salute to Shakespeare

Stacy Keach GETTY - H 2016
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

American and British actors gather in Beverly Hills for a night of Shakespeare on the anniversary of his death.

With April 23 marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, what better way to celebrate than with a little Murder, Lust & Madness? That’s the title of a one-night-only affair kicking off this year’s BritWeek at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, bringing together actors from both sides of the pond to recite a sampling of the bard’s spellbinding poetry.

It’s a rare chance not only to see seasoned veterans like Stacy Keach, Jane Carr, Judy Geeson, Joan Van Ark and Michael York share billing with new names like Ashley Bell, Adan Canto and Joely Fisher, but to compare American and British approaches to some of the most indelible passages in the English language.

Lust for power is more prevalent in Shakespeare’s canon than lust of the carnal kind, and coming amid a particularly volatile campaign season in the U.S. and revelations that U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron failed to declare a shareholding in his late father’s offshore account, the poet’s themes continue to dominate headlines 400 years after his passing.

“Cameron, a good man but yet there is an element that makes him human,” York tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He’s done something for his father and that is very Shakespearean. People talk about Trump’s rise as Shakespearean, and there’s something to be said for that. But the great thing about a Shakespearean character is he’s not a type. He’s bit of this or bit of that. He’s complex.”

Asked whether the saga of Donald Trump is a tragedy or a comedy, Stacy Keach found it a little of both, where York demurred, “It’s not over yet. We’re only in act three.”

Bernard Shaw called the U.S. and U.K. two nations separated by a common language, but Churchill re-framed the pairing as a “special relationship” in the aftermath of World War II. It is in the spirit of that relationship that Nigel Lythgoe established BritWeek in 2007 to celebrate the creative bond between California and Britain across disciplines like design, music, art, fashion, film and TV. Events include art shows, theatrical performances, concerts, screenings, panel discussions and, of course, celebrations like opening night’s Shakespeare event.

Trained at Oxford and a veteran of the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, York made his West End debut in 1956 in a minor role in Hamlet. Upon hearing of Murder, Lust & Madness he might have settled on Iago or Shylock, but in keeping with the campaign season immediately thought of the misshapen sociopath, Richard III, in the winter of his discontent.

“The accent in Shakespeare’s time is much more like American speech, the ‘R’ in the back of the throat,” he says about the fallacy that an English accent is most appropriate when reading Shakespeare. “When that accent went over to America it got rooted there. Whereas the British accent, with German kings and monarchs, went through a complete sound change. I would say if you want to hear an authentic Shakespearean accent, which is of course nonsense, see it in America.”

That’s what Stacy Keach did. While studying at Berkeley, he attended a Laurence Olivier film festival where he saw Hamlet and Richard III and became hooked on Shakespeare. From then on, he spent his summers at Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to Yale School of Drama, where he got the chance to audition for Joseph Papp. “He said, 'are you a member of equity?' And I said 'no.' And he said, 'well you’re going to be, cause you’re going to play Marcellus in a production of Hamlet this summer in the park,'” Keach recalls about getting the role opposite James Earl Jones and Colleen Dewhurst in his first major appearance in a Shakespeare play.

For Murder, Lust & Madness, he’ll read a speech by Jaques in As You Like It, which he recently performed for L.A. Theatre Works. And then he’ll finish with "Our revels now are ended" from The Tempest. “It’s fresh and new every time I come back to it,” says Keach, who seems energized at the prospect of performing, but also listening to his peers. Like many actors, he finds Shakespeare’s plays constantly offering something new. “He wrote in such a way that it depends on where you are in life. It’s like you go see a movie. One time you like it, the other time you don’t like it. It’s the same movie, you’re different.”