Monday, December 17, 2012

My Year Watching Shakespeare.

Crown Jewels

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.

Much Ado About Nothing

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.

Twelfth Night, 
Romeo & Juliet 
The Tempest
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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.

Julius Caesar

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.

Richard II
Henry IV, pt 1
Henry IV, pt 2
Henry V

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.

Edward III
Henry VI, pt 1
Henry VI, pt 2
Henry VI, pt 3
Richard III
Henry VIII

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.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

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.

King Lear
The Comedy of Errors
Anthony and Cleopatra
The Merchant of Venice
Taming of the Shrew

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.

As You Like It
Troilus and Cressida
Merry Wives of Windsor
The Winter’s Tale
King John
Timon of Athens

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.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Titus Andronicus
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure

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.

All’s Well That Ends Well

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.]

Saturday, December 15, 2012

35 John Duttine

Hamlet played by John Duttine.
Directed by Gordon House.

The BBC’s Research and Development group has built a prototype which puts the BBC World Service on the web, making over seventy thousand programmes from the past sixty years available to listen to here. Still in closed testing, I’ve been lucky enough to have been given access (which might be able to ask for too via the details on their blog) and have spent the past few weeks in an agog state, boggling at the mass of programming at my finger tips on hundreds of topics across dozens of genres.

Of course my first search was the Hamlet, of course it was, and apart from documentaries, magazine shows and reviews, sure enough there is at least one production, this production. Originally broadcast in two hour long episodes on Sunday 4th and Tuesday 6th September 1983, adapted for radio by Colin Davis, directed by Gordon House, as you can see starred raffish John Duttine in the title role (his appearance in Day of the Triffids is pictured) and what a privilege to have been given the opportunity to listen.

At first, as audio Hamlets go, it seems superficially orthodox. The sound design is basic and period, with echoes for the interior of the castle, harsh winds for the exterior, scene changes are punctuated by some jingly atonal tubular bells and noodling on a pipe organ, Cyril Shaps’s Polonius is a typically bumbling old buffer with little room for a military mind (no Reynoldo scene) with Hamlet Snr played by famous voiceover artist John Westbook to give the character some spooky gravitas.

Except all the while us listeners, if we’re familiar with the play, notice that Davis in his adaptation experimenting somewhat with the structure of the text and in reducing it to fit the timeslot is making some interesting character-based decision, especially in relation to Hamlet. There’s nothing online at all that I can see about the production, which is a shame because I’d love to know the extent to which the adaptation was done in collaboration with the director and actors or if these are Davis’s alone.

After the Ghost, Davis cuts the swearing scene (“Sweeearrr…”) so to add some time for Hamlet to be off stage (off mic) transposes the introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (in what amounts to their longest scene) with Ophelia’s description to her father of Hamlet’s visit which then leads almost directly into Polonius explaining to the King and Queen that their son is mad and the plan that become the nunnery scene later.

Except, and this is where is becomes really interesting, Davis also cuts the Fishmonger which offers a clue as to how he, the director and Duttine view their Hamlet. In losing Fishmonger, we lose the wilder metaphoric excesses of the characters’ “mania” or “faux-mania” and this is repeated when Claudius asks the prince where he’s placed Polonius’s body and he tells him directly, no convocation of politic worms are e'en at him.

This is one of those sane Hamlets you hear about and rarely played. Or rather this is a Hamlet who seems entirely in control of his faculties and whose madness isn’t a mental illness, but anger. He’s an even more sinister and cruel in places than Peter Vaughn’s Claudius, a figure much more representative of the blandness of evil, only really showing emotion and inconstancy during the prayer scene. When Hamlet’s confronting his mother in the closet, we’re not sure if he won’t do her in as well.

Yet there’s still a constant element of doubt as to whether he’s faking these mood swings too, it’s not just controlled anger. Duttine's is a very public “To Be…”, watched by Polonius and Claudius with Ophelia evidently in proximity but when he spies her, his “Soft you now! The fair Ophelia!” so often played as a way of attracting her attention is internalised, as though he’s realised what he’s about to do, what he must do because he’s being watched, and doesn’t like it. Which suggests these choices have to have been collaborative to some extent.

All of which said, presumably dependent on the timeslot and utility, this is still a Hamlet which includes the greatest hits, from Polonius’s advice through to all of Hamlet’s speeches with the exception of “to the manner born” even to the point of including Fortinbras and his Captain, textually missing in action up until that point, so that “How all occasions do inform against me” can be included with some logic (even if the warring army arguably appears from nowhere in much the same way Laertes does at the end of the Welles adaptation).

The break in story occurs just before an all male Mousetrap, as Polonius agrees that Hamlet should be sent to England and Claudius says “It shall be so. / Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.” It’s an unusual point, especially given the day between the broadcast of the episodes, but it does mean that episode two begins with the ear catching spectacle of the play, which while rushed through, also underscores the aspect of theatricality and “play” inherent in the story.

The climax is pretty traditional, even if the sword fight is pretty swift and Osric is retained, though Fortinbras’s reappearance at the close jars with the perfectly tender way in which David Horovitch’s stalwart Horatio says, “Good night, sweet prince” which feels like the emotional conclusion of this production, though the mood is retained somewhat by the suitably processional music composed by Bernard Shaw (not George).

There's plenty more Shakespeare in the World Service prototype, along with rare productions of Early Modern Drama, though it's worth noting that it's still relatively populist in its choices, there's no Arden of Faversham or anything by Philip Massinger.  But plenty of Marlowe.  Not that I've the time to listen to any of it.  But at least I found the Hamlet.  At least I did that.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

So Long, Shakespeare by Tom Brown published.

This time last year, writer Tom Brown was kind enough to mention me, or rather the @shakespearelogs twitter feed in an article for the Around The Globle Magazine and now he's been in touch to let me know that his book, So Long, Shakespeare has now  been published.  Here's the synopsis:
"The world is about to discover the true author of Shakespeare's plays - and it's not the man from Stratford...

"Hollywood visionary Joe Seabright has one more movie to make in his blockbusting sci-fi saga - which means one last chance to win his longed-for Oscar. Alas, his writing is as wooden as a plank, and desperately needs improving for his dream to become reality.

"Through a miraculous feat of genetic enhancement, Joe inspires himself with Shakespeare's creativity, only to write a screenplay so teeth-itchingly terrible it can mean only one thing: 'Shakespeare' didn't write 'Shakespeare's' plays.

"Meanwhile, in London, authorship boffin Wendy Preston leads her jolly band of Shakespeare-sceptics in their annual conference - little guessing that her life is about to be turned upside down, and an impossible truth uncovered at last.

"So Long, Shakespeare throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and space opera to create a boisterous cultural comedy full of big questions and even bigger egos. Along the way we meet a brilliant, beautiful geneticist, a spooky collector of great artists' DNA, and an embattled mathematician, desperately flailing for a numerical grasp of human artistry. From start to finish, it's a rollicking summation of everything that makes us care about great art, and the geniuses who create it. "
The Kindle edition is available here

Friday, December 07, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: The BBC Television Shakespeare on YouTube.

At the beginning of this month, BBC Worldwide began uploading archive television to its YouTube channel which includes samples from the BBC Shakespeare collection.  So far there are seven plays, all complete:

As You Like It

The Tempest



Julius Caesar

The Merchant of Venice


The Wikipedia has a typically voluminous article with cast lists and background to the series. The rest of BBC Worldwide's uploads are here, whole series of documentaries and dramas including Terry Jones's Medieval Lives.