Thursday, February 9, 2012

Halfway across the Avon

For the 2010 holidays, Laura and I bought ourselves the complete works of William Shakespeare on DVD. As you may or may not recall, from 1978-1985, the BBC set about producing all of Shakespeare's plays, using some of the finest British actors of the time. That's 37 plays in all; they unfortunately chose not to include "The Two Noble Kinsmen", even though it seems that dually-authored play is as much "by Shakespeare" as some of the ones they did produce. Anyway, I remember the series being on while I was in high school (and college), but don't think I ever caught a play in its entirety.

Perhaps it was our 2010 trip to London and visit to the recreation of the Globe Theatre, but we felt we wanted to know more Shakespeare than we did. Once I looked into the BBC series, and saw the incredible actors who were in it (John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Ben Kingsley...), it seemed like a great way to become thoroughly acquainted with The Bard.

The cost for the series on NTSC DVD is a whopping $750. But Amazon had the PAL version much cheaper — it's now $137 there as I write this — and a region-free DVD player can easily be found for under $50. So that's what we did.

You'll find a lot of negative opinions about the BBC series if you prowl around on the web. But on the whole, we've been quite pleased with the productions, and have had a great time watching them. We're currently halfway through the set, and I wanted to take a moment and write just a few words about each play. We're watching them in original broadcast order, so here goes:

Romeo and Juliet
A young Alan Rickman as Tybalt, in his film/video debut! Great idea to start the whole series off with Gielgud. But Anthony Andrews's Mercutio was tough going.

Richard II
Lovely performance by Derek Jacobi. Gielgud's John of Gaunt was very moving, one of the very best performances in the series so far.

As You Like It
Helen Mirren is a delightful Rosalind, despite being plagued with insects in the real forest in which the play was shot.

Julius Caesar
Having just played Jaques in "As You Like It", Richard Pasco gets to show off by turning around and playing Brutus here. Nicely done, and good to see Keith Michell as Marc Antony.

Measure for Measure
A strange play. Smashing performance by Tim Pigott-Smith as Angelo. And fan of the RSC's "Nicholas Nickleby" that I am, it was great to see two veterans here, Alun Armstrong and John McEnery.

Henry VIII
Laura and I began to feel this about the history plays: The play begins, "things happen", and then the play ends. Often not the most dramatic experience. But great to see Claire Bloom here as Katharine.

Henry IV, Part 1
Wonderful performance by Anthony Quayle as Falstaff.

Henry IV, Part 2
Wonderful performance by Anthony Quayle as Falstaff. (Oh, I just said that.)

Henry V
David Gwillim is an immensely appealing actor, and built up a lot of good will as Hal during the preceding two plays. But this overall production didn't have the impact of Olivier's or Branagh's. (Of course, their budgets helped...)

Twelfth Night
A thoroughly delightful and hilarious performance by Alec McCowen as Malvolio. Also nice to see Robert Lindsay in his first of several roles in the series.

The Tempest
A strong Prospero from Michael Hordern. Fascinating play.

Derek Jacobi -- the definitive Cyrano -- doesn't disappoint as the Melancholy Dane. And Patrick Stewart! Someone should compile a list of famous actors who show up in this series. It would be surprising, and boost sales!

The Taming of the Shrew
This is where Jonathan Miller takes over the reigns of producing the whole series. A very good production with some very funny actors, John Cleese not least among them.

The Merchant of Venice
Terrifically powerful performance by Warren Mitchell as Shylock. I loved how he danced along the edge of caricature, but never fell over. But as a side note, this is the first time we noticed how totally haphazardly the DVD menu screens and cases are composed. The actor pictured on the menu screen looks like he might be playing Shylock in some production of the play, but is definitely not Warren Mitchell! There have been similar goofs. Both the DVD case and menu screens for "Antony and Cleopatra" show the actors playing Octavius Caesar and Cleopatra!

All's Well That Ends Well
This was the first production that I would give an actual "thumbs down". Director Elijah Moshinsky seems much more interested in recreating Vermeer paintings than in finding the drama in the play. That said, it is a very strange and unsatisfying play, not helped by an unappealing Angela Down as Helena, and a totally bizarre kiss between Helena and the King! What was that all about?

The Winter's Tale
Wow, the first 30 minutes of this were as good as anything has been in the entire series. Riveting and upsetting. Not that the rest was bad, either. Extremely well acted and directed. Yay Jane Howell! And man, were we happy when Margaret Tyzack arrived on the scene to try to set things right!

Timon of Athens
Jonathan Miller took over the direction of this play when Michael Bogdanov left during pre-production. But it feels like the switch transpired the morning taping began. This production is heavily marred by technical issues, primarily audio. It is often difficult to hear the actors when Miller has them delivering lines from the far end of the studio. And the crunching gravel underfoot drowns the voices out like the pearls in "Singin' in the Rain"! And, an entire soliloquy where we have to watch Jonathan Pryce upside-down? Really? Pryce did his best, but this is a truly weird, implausible play in a shaky production.

Antony and Cleopatra
It's said Miller was going for "unheroic" main characters, and that's what he got. Jane Lapotaire, if not a natural born Cleopatra, was still quite effective. This is a much smoother production than "Timon", but there were still a few technical issues.

Rather than cutting from different angles, Miller has a tendency to capture long expanses of the play in one take, no doubt due to his background in the theatre. (I tend to do the same thing in my films, and for the same reason.) There were many instances where this worked terrifically well, as Miller was able to recompose his shots and shift focus simply by having the actors turn their heads. But cutting has its benefits too. Did we really need to see backlit snot dripping off a sobbing Jane Lapotaire's nose? A cut there would have been welcome. (Or at least, couldn't Charmian or Iras have had a hanky for her?) Distracting and a bit gross.

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