William Shakespeare, the man, playwright and poet, has been portrayed onscreen since the dawn of motion pictures. But with the exception of Joseph Fiennes’ performance as the youngish Will in 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” those portrayals have often been slight, intentionally arch appearances in TV shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
Consequently, it was a bit surprising to learn that in 1978, a British TV miniseries entitled “Life of Shakespeare” presented a six-hour dramatic exploration of the Bard’s life, with Tim Curry, only three years removed from his infamous performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in the title role. The miniseries, however, was never shown on American television and has not been available here until this week, when A&E Home Entertainment will release it on DVD as “Will Shakespeare” (two discs, $29.99, not rated).
Although the miniseries lacks the panache and romantic intensity of director John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, actress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and screenplay (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard), it remains worthwhile viewing for those who are in thrall of the Bard. And Curry, a notorious scenery chewer, acquits himself with both subtlety and force.
Written by John Mortimer (who would shortly thereafter write “Rumpole of the Bailey” for British television) and directed by Peter Wood, Mark Cullingham and Robert Knights, “Will Shakespeare” traces the author’s life and work from 1590, when Shakespeare was a struggling playwright in London, to about 1607, when he returns home to Stratford-Upon-Avon and his long-estranged wife for the marriage of one of his daughters.
Despite its relatively low budget, “Will Shakespeare” does a good job in depicting London’s teeming, dirty streets and the milieu of taverns, disease and dilapidated lodgings that were the lot of most theater folk. An exception was Christopher Marlowe (played by Ian McShane, of “Lovejoy,” “Sexy Beast” and “Deadwood” fame), who was from the upper class. Unlike “Shakespeare in Love,” where Marlowe gave useful professional advice to the younger Shakespeare, here it is Shakespeare who tells Marlowe, “I have noticed your verse sometimes walks a little halting” while helping the established playwright overcome a case of writer’s block.
More central to Shakespeare’s personal and professional life is the Earl of Southampton (Nicholas Clay), who becomes Shakespeare’s patron, close friend and recipient of some of the writer’s most famous sonnets. Something of a rogue and dilettante, the Earl enables Shakespeare’s entry into the Elizabethan court, but also exposes the playwright to political intrigues that almost ruin him. The production treats their relationship somewhat ambiguously, never clearly showing whether they were just dear friends or homosexual lovers.
As the story moves along, we see Shakespeare grow in stature and affluence, and we join contemporary audiences watching Shakespeare’s actors in their Globe Theatre presenting scenes from such plays as “Richard III,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” Paul Freeman, who later played Belloq, Indiana Jones’ French nemesis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” stands out as the famous actor Dick Burbage.
While “Shakespeare in Love” placed a fictional romance between the playwright and Viola De Lesseps (Paltrow) at the center of its tale, “Will Shakespeare” dwells upon Shakespeare’s disappointing home life back in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where his wife Anne (Meg Wynn Owen), portrayed as more bitter than shrewish, holds the family together during the frequent absences of her husband. Away from home, Shakespeare fools around with tavern girls and has an unrequited romance with Mary Fleminge (Janet Spencer-Turner), the married wife of a nobleman and the “dark lady” of his sonnets. Yet his happiest moments are in the company of the Earl of Southampton and his Globe actors.
Although one can’t fault “Will Shakespeare” for failing to include a romance that never actually existed, the relative absence of passion and excitement is a more general problem with the miniseries. It’s well-acted and well-written but fails to fully engage a viewer over six hours.
Still, for lovers of the Bard’s immortal work, discovering this three-decades-old miniseries will be a worthwhile viewing experience. While “Will Shakespeare” may not be the stuff that dreams are made on, there is method in its madness.