Friday, April 29, 2011

Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (1969).

Hamlet played by Ian Richardson.

Despite its excellent reputation for pioneering the presenter led documentary format, after forty years in which the structure has been developed and redeveloped it's often difficult to watch and properly appreciate Civilisation now. Epochs are passed over in a matter of minutes and Kenneth Clark's idiosyncratic, dismissive attitude to the material (material in this case being the great works of western civilisation) has an alienating quality.

As you might expect, I parted company with Clark somewhere in episode seven when he dismisses all of cinema as being "mostly vulgar, always ephemeral" whilst unfairly comparing it Michelangelo and Bernini which probably lacks a sense of perspective. On the one hand "a personal view" gives him some latitude to stray out of a simple exercise in imparting knowledge. I'm just pleased this isn't my first introduction to some of these great works.

Before that, slotted in at the tail end of episode six, which largely concerns itself with Albrecht Duerer, Martin Luther and the world of the humanists Erasmus and Montaigne, he assigns a measly ten minutes to Shakespeare. But what a ten minutes! Against the backdrop of a ruin, William Devlin wanders through offering a reading of Lear's wrath against the elements and his own mental decrepitude and in voice over Eric Porter gives us his "Tomorrow and tomorrow..." from Macbeth.

Hamlet is served by a beautifully filmed version of Yorick which begins by focusing on Ronald Lacey just slowly revealing the presence of Ian Richardson's Hamlet and a very young Patrick Stewart in an early television appearance from when he was still predominantly known as a stage actor. Interestingly, though all three were at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time of filming (as far as I can tell) only Richardson is credited as such in the closing credits.

The whole scene is available above. Richardson originally played the role just after leaving drama school at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre which is where he was talent scouted for the RSC (rather like a footballer) by John Barton, a story he told to The Theatre Archive Project in 2007 (just ten days before he left us):
What happened was in 1959 I played Hamlet. And in 1959… Sir Peter Hall - then just ordinary ‘Peter Hall’ - was director - Artistic Director Designate - of the… what was then called the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. And he wanted to start afresh with a young company. So what he did was he sent spies, - there’s no other word for them, ‘spies’, I suppose you call them nowadays ‘talent scouts’ - all over the provinces to see plays done by these many, many repertory companies up and down the country, to see if there were any promising youngish actors - because Peter Hall was not even thirty when he took over, you know. And one of those so-called ‘spies’ was John Barton, and he saw me playing Hamlet at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and he immediately reported back to Peter Hall, ‘I think you’ll want to get this one!’, and the long and short of the story is that I was offered a contract and I joined the - still the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre - as one of Peter Hall’s ‘babies’ as we were all called, and my contemporaries were Diana Rigg, Ian Holm, Peggy Ashcroft to name but three."
Richardson's rendering of the part here, whilst just a fragment and in the Olivier mode (understandable given the requirements of the series) the actor's performance still encapsulates Barton's philosophy of making the pauses count and showcases the supine regality and mesmerising eyes which he'd employ to greatest effect as Francis Urquhart in the House of Cards trilogy.

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