June 03, 2007

The BBC Shakespeare

While seeing the Complete Works Festival has been the main part of my work over the last year, I’ve been quietly supplementing this with two other ‘Bardathons’. The first is the academic, where I’ve been reading the Arden editions of every play, and I’ll probably post some thoughts about that once I’ve finished (I’m on the last one now!). The second is the screen Bardathon, where I’ve been trying to watch as many filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays as possible, in order to get an idea of the range of interpretations out there.

Part of this has included steeling myself to watch the entire infamous BBC Shakespeare Collection. Screened from 1979 to 1985, and including everything in the canon bar ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, these productions have a generally very bad reputation as being dull, uninventive and bound by their funders’ wishes for the series to be a straight, traditional and “definitive” archive of Shakespeare performances. Low production values and an almost complete confinement to the studio haven’t helped with the enduring image of them as low quality TV aspiring to something they couldn’t reach.

So imagine my surprise, having just finished watching all 37 films, to find that they’re not nearly as bad as I’d thought! Granted, there is an initial mental jump that needs to be made, as the productions do look dated- but then, so do Olivier’s movies. Behind the static camerawork and the God-awful 70s haircuts (thinking especially of Proteus and Valentine in ‘Two Gentlemen Of Verona’), lie an often highly interesting group of interpretations.

Granted, some productions failed miserably. ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ stands out as particularly interminable, even Jane Lapotaire’s Cleopatra failing to raise the production. ‘The Merry Wives Of Windsor’ too, despite Ben Kinglsey’s performance as Ford and Richard Griffiths certainly looking the part as Falstaff, also suffered from an overwhelming dreariness.

When the series succeeded, though, it really sparkled. One of my favourites was ‘Macbeth’, with Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire. Director Jack Gold created a wonderful medieval atmosphere, and the production brought out fascinating moments of character- Lady Macbeth orgasming over her husband’s letter and a surprisingly dangerous Macduff being stand outs.

Some of British TV’s leading sitcom actors proved they could handle weighty parts with flair- Leonard Rossiter made an excellent King John, while John Cleese was a Puritan and remarkably interesting Petruchio, treading a line between flamboyancy and restraint. Robert Lindsay kept appearing throughout the series too, playing Fabian, Lysander, Benedick and Iachimo, showcasing his versatility.

John Gielgud started the whole thing off as the Prologue to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, though his appearance at the start did cast the rest of the production into shadow. Alan Rickman’s Tybalt, though (his first screen appearance) shone throughout. The series was then followed up with an acting showcase that would ensure a sellout in any theatre- ‘Richard II’ starring Derek Jacobi, Jon Finch, John Gielgud, Charles Gray and several more in an intelligent and moving reading of the play, particularly in Jacobi’s final scenes as the fading Richard.

A young Helen Mirren made an excellent Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’, in one of the two productions that ventured out of the studio, using the local woodlands. ‘Henry VIII’ went a step further, setting itself entirely in stately homes and castles, and featuring a particularly strong performance from Timothy West as Wolsey.

The undoubted highlight of the series for me was the ‘Henry VI’/’Richard III’ cycle directed by Jane Howell. Completely breaking with any idea of a ‘house style’, she directed the four plays as a continuous ensemble cycle, playing with theatrical concepts such as a single set (a children’s adventure playground) and clever doubling (Talbot reappeared as Jack Cade, the dead Henry VI became a priest, and the primary Yorkists – York, Warwick etc. – returned as Richmond’s army against Richard III). Self-conscious theatricality, such as pantomime horses and captioned titles, emphasised playfulness in Part 1, but then the set became gradually more battered, the violence became more bloody and the whole tone of the project eventually ended in the dark political machinations of Ron Cook’s unconventional but highly effective Richard III. The final controversial image, of the insane Margaret sitting on top of a mountain of mutilated bodies, cradling the battered frame of Richard and laughing manically, is about the most brutal image I’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare production.

Another of the finer productions was Jonathan Miller’s ‘Timon Of Athens’, which gave Jonathan Pryce free rein to vent his spleen in a sparse landscape straight out of Beckett. Miller, as the second series producer, was the man who steered the series away from artistic stagnation through his willingness to break the rules laid down by the original funders, and also directed some of the series’ better moments. ‘King Lear’ was a particularly impressive entry, with Michael Hordern as an excellent lead and solid support from Frank Middlemass (Fool), Anton Lesser (Edgar), Penelope Wilton (Regan), Brenda Blethyn (Cordelia), Michael Kitchen (Edmund) and in particular John Bird’s Albany, giving a great deal of depth to a smaller role.

‘Othello’ is worth seeing for the pairing of Antony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins as Othello and Iago, who had a good chemistry that was let down by the claustrophobic and somewhat uninventive production. ‘Hamlet’, the other major tragedy with a starry cast, saw Derek Jacobi on good form as an older Hamlet and ably supported by Patrick Stewart’s unusually sympathetic Claudius.

The late plays generally worked well, particularly Jane Howell’s heavily stylised ‘Winter’s Tale’ and David Jones’ ‘Pericles’. Fortunately, those plays which have only had major screenings in this series were mostly fairly solid, and Mike Gwilym as Pericles stood out as excellent. ‘Coriolanus’ fared slightly less well, attempting a more experimental style but coming out as a slightly choppy mess. Mike Gwilym and Alan Howard as Aufidius and Caius, though, worked well together.

‘The Comedy Of Errors’ was a generally very interesting production, and clearly inspired Nancy Meckler’s RSC production in 2005, though The Who’s Roger Daltrey was really miscast as the two Dromios. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, despite being the production that most blatantly ignored the rules by setting itself centuries after its time, suffered from an overly slow approach, while ‘Measure For Measure’ excelled in its willingness to take its time and allow the actors, particularly Kate Nelligan’s Isabella and Tim Pigott-Smith’s Angelo, to fully explore their roles.

The series has its flaws, no-one would dispute that. But in watching them with few expectations, I have to say that I was continually pleasantly surprised at the willingness to innovate and the daring decisions made by some of the dictators. The reputation of the series as conservative is fair, but only part of the story, and I would strongly urge giving some of them a second chance.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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