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Jan 26 2013

Uncovering Shakespeare

There’s a BBC Four series from last summer, Uncovering Shakespeare; I saw the first two episodes last night, Macbeth first and The Comedies/Shakespeare’s Women second, which is the opposite of the order of broadcast.

I thought the Macbeth wasn’t very good. It was way too heavy on “interesting” but totally irrelevant visuals – lots of New York streets packed with cars, for instance; wut? – and way too light on the words. Not enough discussion of the words, not enough saying of them, not enough clips of actors saying them, pretty much no discussion at all of the way the words do the work. On the other hand there were some clips, and the discussion wasn’t actually boring, so I enjoyed watching it, but I wished it had been better.

But the next one was good. Joely Richardson was the presenter, and she knows her Shakespeare (and his words) a lot better than Ethan Hawke (who presented the Macbeth one) does.

And it was on a subject I’m very keen on, which is how astonishing it is that Shakespeare did so much with women characters when that wasn’t the norm at all (and still isn’t, not to the extent that he did it) and when he had only boys to play the parts. Yeah. They talked mostly about Twelfth Night and As You Like It. There was a lot of conversation with Vanessa Redgrave, sitting opposite Joely Richardson on a couch. JR’s voice is so like VR’s it’s almost funny.

Neither episode, though, can hold a candle to Playing Shakespeare, the nine part series directed by John Barton in which actors – Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, Peggy Ashcroft, David Suchet, Harriet Walter, Alan Howard, and others – and Barton discuss the language in detail, and perform bits of scenes. It’s enthralling and illuminating (and regulars with acute memories will remember that I’ve talked about it before). It’s on DVD; the library has it. What’s taken me so long?!

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Cuttlefish

    I found it interesting that a program on Shakespeare’s women had, if memory serves, just one passing mention of Portia, and none of Lady MacBeth. I actually liked that, though; I’ve seen those women featured in other shows and books, so it was good to see a different take.

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    To say nothing of Paulina, Emilia, Imogen, Kate in 2HenryIV, Beatrice, Cordelia, Desdemona, and on and on. But clearly the idea was a sample.

  3. 3
    InvincibleIronyMan

    I didn’t know you were a Shakespere lover, but with a name like Ophelia I suppose it was inevitable. I like you even more now! My favorite female part in Shakespeare is Emilia. If you haven’t Zoe Wanamaker is magnificent in Trevor Nunn’s production with Willard White and Ian McKellen

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    You’d think, but actually the name isn’t relevant. I wasn’t always a Shakespeare lover but I rectified the error before it was too late. I haven’t seen that production. Funny though, I was just talking about Zoe Wanamaker yesterday on Twitter.

  5. 5
    Argle Bargle

    Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favorite Shakespearean characters. She knows her own mind and isn’t going to let anyone push her around. She’s a stronger character than her lover, Benedict.

  6. 6
    susans

    Walking, walking, walking, they kept walking and I thought, less walking and more Shakespeare.

  7. 7
    Didaktylos

    You do know that Joely Richardson is Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter? As I recall, one of Ricardson’s first film roles was in Wetherby where she and her mother played the same character at different stages of life.

  8. 8
    sailor1031

    “…how astonishing it is that Shakespeare did so much with women characters…”

    Well, there was a very strong female role-model reigning at the time and Shakespeare, as Don Marquis points out, was quite shameless about throwing in compliments to the queen in particular and the tudors in general…

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, I know JR is VR’s daughter! I know the whole complicated family tree, I think, although I suppose it’s possible there are a few stray cousins I’m not aware of. JR includes the family heritage as part of her presentation – standing in the Old Vic she notes that her grandfather and Laurence Olivier did Hamlet there in 1937, Mike playing Laertes, and one night at curtain call Larry informed the audience of the birth of a new actor the same evening. That was Vanessa.

    “Less walking and more Shakespeare” – indeed. It’s kind of insulting to have so much pointless “visual” stuff at the expense of content, as if we were too stupid to watch without being soothed by pretty pictures.

  10. 10
    jflcroft

    Playing Shakespeare is wonderful. One of my best memories from Cambridge is being directed by John Barton in a student production during a few rehearsals. Cool guy – was never without a little brown bag of liquor.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    Omigod were you??! Wow I’m jealous.

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Any favorites from Playing Shakespeare, James? Some of mine -

    Peggy Ashcroft saying, “Perchance, Iago, I shall ne’er go home.”

    McKellen and Suchet doing the Justice Shadow/Falstaff bit, with McKellen pouring on the creaky wavery ancient voice, and afterward Barton saying, delicately, “You were so old…” and everyone cracking up.

    Alan Howard doing Achilles telling off Ulysses from T&C – “Thou, Ulysses, thou!” Goose bumps. That voice.

    Patrick Stewart doing Leontes. “Inch thick, knee deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!”

    Suchet and Stewart doing comparative Shylocks.

    Kingsley and I forget who else doing the opening lines of A&C, then Kingsley saying the words are like a hypodermic straight to the arm.

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