Shakespeare. Twenty-twelve was an excellent year for Shakespeare. Arguably, of course, every year venerates Bill to some degree but with the Cultural Olympiad deciding that he’s one our greatest exports, twenty-twelve was indeed an excellent year for Shakespeare. Not since the birthday celebrations in 1997, has there been such a focus across the media and in theatres, with the Shakespeare: Staging The World exhibition at the British Museum, the Globe to Globe season at the “replica” with all of the plays in various languages from visiting theatre groups, part of a World Shakespeare Festival.
But for those of us in the provinces, it was still a great year for accessible Shakespeare with his plays appearing across the BBC in various forms which was why at around March time I decided that I’d spend a portion of the year working my own way through the canon, with non-broadcast plays covered by other productions on film, video and audio I’d not had a chance to catch up with yet. So I printed off an alphabetical list and stuck it to my door, ready to be crossed off as I demolished each testament to man’s creative ingenuity. Plus as it turned out Geoffrey Wright’s disastrous gangster version of Macbeth with Sam Worthington in the title role.
Away from the many documentaries, the BBC’s first broadcast productions were on Radio 3. A stripped down production of Much Ado About Nothing appeared in the Afternoon on 3 slot designed to highlight the music Eric Korngold composed for a 1910s production with Daniela Nardini as Beatrice and Liam Brennan as Benedick and although it didn’t hold together as drama due to the brevity of the text it was a treat to hear Korngold’s music in situ and there was real chemistry between the stars despite them obviously reading the play in from a script. It's just a pity that it wasn't filmed as per an earlier A Midsummer Night's Dream which is still available to watch here.
On three Saturdays, the Drama on 3 slot brought Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet and The Tempest as well as a repeat of last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the four shared anything other than cast members, it was atmosphere, especially Dream which was recorded on location in a Sussex woodland which meant the timber of the voices and footprints created an extra level of twilight magic (a production aided by Roger Allum’s excellent Bottom). David Tennant and Ron Cook bestrode the Night and Romeo in various roles with only The Tempest not quite holding together due to a confusing restructuring of the text. Epic Prosporo from David Warner though.
June brought BBC Four’s broadcast of the RSC’s then current production of Julius Caesar. Produced by Illuminations (whose previous work includes recordings of David Tennant in Hamlet and Patrick Stewart in Macbeth), their grand experiment was to record the play’s public scenes in the RSC theatre during a performance and intercut that with intimate moments shot on location in an abandoned shopping mall, an experiment didn’t quite work for me. The theatre scenes had a glorious energy, which wasn't quite replicated in the interior scenes at first, despite a magnetic Brutus performance from Paterson Joseph.
But it’s worth noting that Caesar isn’t my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays anyway. After a tremendous first few opening acts, it descends into a tedious miasma of skirmishes and spats but, and this is important, this production somehow managed to make those lucid and emotionally charged especially as the loyalties of the conspirators were wrought asunder. But I just couldn’t help, during the scenes artistically shot using iPhones wondering who was holding the camera and how they were able to get all of those angles. Nevertheless this was a bold statement on how television and theatre companies need not be deadly rivals.
Illuminations had begun planning on a recording of the RSC’s repertory of The Histories, but this was cancelled when the behemoth that was The Hollow Crown spun across the horizon. A filmic version of the first Henriad, this didn’t disappoint in entertainment terms with starry casts, incandescent photography and interconnected readings of the plays even if ambitious Saturday night scheduling during Wimbledon meant the audiences weren’t quite as huge as they deserved to be, watching Twitter on those evening revealed that casting Tom Hiddleston drew in a demographic that might otherwise be uninterested.
Of the four, Richard II was the most successful thanks to Ben Wishaw's mesmerising whisper though the title role and a determination to put the text to the forefront, especially during the John of Gaunt sections, where a slow push in did full justice to Patrick Stewart's enunciation of The Sceptred Isle. If anything, the Henry V was less successful due to its determination not to be anything like the Branagh film, rather than be its own thing and damn the similarities. But I was please to have seen been able to cross the rarely filmed Henry IVs of my list. Little did I know what was to come.
Hiddleston was actually the second Henry I’d seen of the year, the first being Jamie Parker’s boyishly regal version in the Globe’s touring production of Henry V which I wrote about at length here. Then, come August, I was hearing the play again along with a dozen others as part of the BBC Radio 4 Extras repeat of Vivat Rex, the twenty-six part mash-up of plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries describing the history of the monarchy from Edward II through to Elizabeth I produced in 1977 to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee, now re-emerging in her Diamond year.
The series was gamely broadcast on weekday mornings for a month and I giddly recorded them all and listened to them across about four days, lost in the maze of words and history. In project terms it meant I somewhat heard my first production of Edward III, listed as anonymous then but subsequent “canonised” as at least a collaboration thanks to textual analysis. It also allowed me to include other playwrights in my personal festival, including expectedly John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck and the anonymous Thomas of Woodstock albeit in heavily truncated versions.
Which, as far as I can remember, was it for broadcast Shakespeare. But there was still another twenty-odd plays to cover, having disregarded The Two Noble Kinsmen due to only recently listening to the one available professional recording within months of starting to work through the canon in earnest and assuming that Vivat Rex had more than covered the shortfall. Luckily because I’m a fan with an overbearing collector gene, I’ve multiple copies of all the plays in various formats from different companies, so it was really just a matter of choosing what to listen to, thinned down somewhat by having to select productions I’d not visited yet.
So on my flat screen I saw Ralph Fiennes’s visceral Coriolanus, Trevor Nunn’s RSC production of King Lear with Ian McKellen facing off against Sylvester McCoy’s clown, Nunn’s The Comedy of Errors with Judi Dench curiously recorded in a studio with audience cutaways and pretence of having been shot in the RSC theatre, a bizarre 1983 Antony and Cleopatra with Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave with Nichelle Nichols and Walter Keonig in minor roles, Tom Stoppard’s truncation of The Merchant of Venice presented by the National Youth Theatre in 1998 and a charming Taming of the Shrew from Canada’s CBC in the 1980s.
Audio is trickier. There are essentially four collections available; The 50s Marlowe Society in conjunction with the British Council released on Argo, the 60s Shakespeare Recording Society productions published by Harper Collins, the 90s Arkangel complete works directed by Clive Brill and the BBC radio versions produced in and around the millennium along with a smattering of classic radio releases. All share some extraordinary casting choices often dictated by contemporary productions but unfortunately they’re also incredibly inconsistent, demonstrating that even the best plays can be rendered unlistenable through bad choices.
In other words, while you might assume the Argo version of As You Like It and might be boring and bobbins and the Arkangel Troilus and Cressida a treat, the reverse is true, but its reversed again when comparing Argo’s unfunny Merry Wives of Windsor and Arkangel’s superb The Winter’s Tale. John Gielgud crops up as Time in the latter and can also be heard narrating their poignant Pericles, and it’s casting choices such as these which led me, despite their bland Cymbeline to defaulting to ArkAngel anyway. Their treatment of King John gives it the panto welly it needs, the Timon of Athens a clear, logical communication substituting the new National Theatre production I couldn’t get to.
Arkangel is also the place to go to hear a young Damien Lewis offer his Valentine in the neglected The Two Gentlemen of Verona (opposite Michael Maloney’s Proteus) and Harriet Walter’s expressive Tamora in Titus Andronicus. But eventually I had to resort the Argo with their rather neutral interpretation of Love’s Labour’s Lost and the HarperCollins Measure for Measure in which Sir Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton manage to drain their dialogue of all its subliminal bawdiness against which Gielgud’s Duke seems perfectly cast even if he doesn’t quite manage to emphasise the shiftiness inherent in the role.
There was a gap in the middle for the Olympics, which lasted even longer once I became addicted to the Paralympics too. But eventually I completed the list somewhat were I started six months ago with the BBC All’s Well That Ends Well with Emma Fielding, Siân Phillips and Miriam Margolyes produced to celebrate the millennium and Michael Grandage’s Othello for the Donmar Warehouse recorded for the BBC in studio by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan MacGreggor, Hiddleston (again) and Kelly Reilly (which again I wish had been filmed), ending finally with Argo’s dull Hamlet, which I reviewed here. And if all that’s been exhausting to read you should have listened to some of them.
If the project demonstrated anything to me, it’s that most of the cliché’s are true. There really isn’t anyone like Shakespeare for the depth and quality of language, for investigating the human spirit, for capturing our national identity. But like I said that it’s then up to the director and actors to communicate that language, story and history to the audience, to believe in what they’re doing. Surprisingly it’s the so-called obscurities which came out best, especially later when listening to the audios, where when someone more used to Lear is handed Pericles they find another character of dimension.
But it's also suggested that every generation deserves its complete works because what all of these endeavours capture, from Vivat Rex to ArkAngel, isn't just an interpretation of the text, but a snapshot of the theatrical life of the nation through directors and through casting. Television hasn't had a complete works since the 80s, audio since 1998, and although in both cases the BBC is slowly recording version of some of the plays, it's those obscurities that could do with some attention. Now that Edward III and others have joined the canon, isn't it time for them to be given some professional attention?
[This post was originally written as part of the Review 2012 series on my personal blog, the rest of which can be seen here.]