“Playing Shakespeare is, I suppose, like being faced with the Himalayas: they are the great peaks ahead and whether you reach the top perhaps doesn’t always matter. Climbing the foothills and getting even halfway up, there’s going to be a wonderful view.”
— Ian McKellen
“The genius of these kinds of masterpieces is their ability to live from… century to century.”
— Kenneth Branagh
“The play’s the thing.”
Using film to record Shakespeare’s plays is possibly born of a desire to simply have a permanent record of the Bard’s grand studies of the human condition staged, which he rendered in stunning poetics. If it is a glory to watch (and hear) on the stage, why not indelibly transfer it to film? There have been a plethora of filmic renderings which have attempted to not only record Shakespeare’s immortal words, but also to transform them into full-scale cinema, some of the most sumptuous of these being Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Franco Zephirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.
Such productions, though visually attractive and generally populated with first-rate actors, are necessarily limited by time constraints: Shakespeare’s plays, as written , tend to run much longer than that which is acceptable for something bearing a made-in-Hollywood stamp. While all of the major players might have the opportunity to speak at least half of their lines for the film version, there are many words — and in some cases, entire characters — which need to be cut (excepting, of course, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, which utilized every syllable of the play).
The productions included in the Thames Shakespeare Collection have no such time restrictions and while not utilizing absolutely every line, they are, for the most part, longer and also “stagier” than most Hollywood versions. That is because these British productions — most of them filmed in the ’70s by the Thames television company and released individually onto DVD within the past two years — were (and remain) essentially stage plays. Romeo & Juliet and King Lear were created specifically for Thames television while Twelfth Night and Macbeth were televised versions of successful stage productions.
While there is great variety of interpretation included in the collection, each film contains elements that seem purer, more essentially Shakespearean than most Hollywood versions, for all their beautiful trappings. Although Shakespeare’s characters and their situations are timeless and can fill any venue to overflowing (whether it be stage or screen), viewing a Shakespeare play on a stage (or in this case, the film of a stage) is a bracing experience. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, Shakespeare was a phenomenal success while writing his plays specifically for the spare Elizabethan stage. Compared to most cinematic Shakespearean productions, the plays contained in the Thames collection afford less distraction from the Bard’s beautiful words and the (often) majestic delivery of those words: the powerful human experiences expressed, are given ample opportunity to practically jump off the screen.
King Lear and Romeo and Juliet both have the look of fairly traditional stage plays: standard sets, period costumes, etc. Besides making the effort immortal, bringing the camera into such a production allows each member of the “audience” the advantage of a front-row seat in order to catch every nuanced expression on which the camera chooses to focus.
This aspect is especially welcome in Romeo and Juliet, where Christopher Neame as Romeo gives a wonderfully expressive performance. In the DVD extra entitled Romeo and Juliet: A Family Feud he relates that Romeo was (and is) a “consummate role for a young actor.” In many ways, Neame is the “consummate” Romeo: he’s pretty, and he has a beautiful command of Shakespeare’s poetics and utilizes every gesture and facial feature at his disposal to create a most impassioned performance.
The only problem is that Neame often seems to have more passion for his lines than he does for his sweet but often saccharine Juliet, played by Ann Hasson. Here the memory of the palpable heat between Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (in the Zephirelli film) keeps rearing its cinematic head to create a most unfortunate comparison. Although Neame and Hasson both create believably passionate characters, the sparks never truly fly between them.
The sparks do fly thick and fast in all of the production’s sword fights, however, where David Robb’s Tybalt well deserves his title “The King of Cats”. He meets his match in Robin Nedwell’s Mercutio (who is possibly the most appealing Mercutio ever) extremely intelligent while being completely accessible) and their death-dealing duel is great swashbuckling fun. In the Romeo and Juliet: A Family Feud interview, Robb relates that both he and Nedwell, while great friends off-stage, each felt that his particular character was supposed to be a more skillful swordsman than the other, which well explains the explosive heat generated in that particular sequence.
The other play included which has a fairly standard stage appearance is King Lear, starring Patrick McGee in the title role. While practically every actor in Romeo and Juliet gives a mature and accomplished performance, the actors in King Lear can be basically divided into two groups: those with a professional delivery and those who seem to have gotten lost on their way to a high school production. Representing this great chasm are the two families in the play: that of King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester (played by Ronald Radd) and especially his sons Edgar (Robert Coleby) and Edmund (Patrick Mower) breathe real life into Shakespeare’s characters while the actors playing Lear (Patrick McGee) and his daughters appear to be merely satisfied that they were able to memorize their lines (although Wendy Alnutt as Cordelia emotes authentic goodness without excessive sweetness, something not always successfully accomplished by actresses playing this sort of part).
In the DVD extra, Edmund: A Pivotal Role, Mower, who plays the blackguard Edmund with wickedly irresistible panache, admits that the play “creaked a bit”. Although he was referring to the flimsy cardboard sets and the unwieldy cameras (which forced him to die sitting up instead of lying down) rather than anyone’s “creaky” performance, he does have some fun at the expense of McGee’s wooden delivery, mimicking his Lear to a tee. McGee’s glowering brow looks like it was cast in cement and his growling voice does not ultimately do justice to the tragic potential of Shakespeare’s character: his performance inspires more giggles than gravitas.
But for all it’s “creakiness”, the Thames King Lear does present, in Mower’s words, “a lucid, clear reading” of the play. While the play’s technical difficulties may have contributed to the stiffness of delivery in more than one performance (“don’t lean on that wall!”), the sets are attractive as are the period costumes worn by the cast. And although all of the players don’t deliver academy award-winning performances, they all do approach Shakespeare with great, simple clarity of interpretation and speech; it is this element in particular makes the Thames production, in many ways, a solid version of Lear.
In the DVD extra, Inside an Illyrian Winter, Kenneth Branagh tells how he sought deliberately to bring to light in equal measure the humor and the sadness of his Renaissance Theater Company’s production of Twelfth Night. Debuting as a stage play in December of 1987 and filmed by Thames television in the following year, it is not patently obvious that his rendition actually demonstrates the play’s “dark side” any more than, say Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film version does. After all, sadness is right there in spades in the original play — separation, death, humiliation, and the pain of unrequited love — and while one could conceivably tone down these elements, to do so would greatly mar the story’s basic thrust.
Without a doubt, though, this performance of Twelfth Night does have a very original feel, which makes it definitely worth the view. The entire production, played by an evenly talented cast, is performed as it debuted: in a large television studio simply dressed as Olivia’s courtyard. In addition to being placed in a Dickensian Christmas setting, what makes the play truly unique is its original music. Written by Patrick Doyle and containing one song “donated” by Paul McCartney, the music is so central to this play that ironically, it nearly drowns Orsino’s first spoken words: “If music be the food of love, play on.”
The most visually spare but also the most emotionally stunning production included in the collection is Macbeth. First performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976 and filmed in 1979 after “hundreds” of performances, this play was, in Ian McKellan’s words “Shakespeare on the cheap” (the quote taken from his extremely insightful interview entitled, The Scottish Play, included in the DVD extras). Except for the coronation robe, there are no period costumes and only a few props. McKellen, in the title role, wears, for the most part, a leather jacket while his lady, played by Judi Dench, wears a simple black gown and what appears to be a black tea towel wrapped around her head. The camera makes ample use of light and dark (while using black and white film, no less) to create a production that is completely free to focus on Shakespeare’s words, his characters and the essential terror of his play.
Although every single player in the stellar cast gives an outstanding performance (and Ian McDiarmid’s turn as the comic-relief porter is not to be missed), none are more electrifying than McKellen and Dench. They actually generate more heat at the play’s outset than Christopher Neame and Ann Hasson do in the entire three hours of Romeo and Juliet. Their deep respect for and command of Elizabethan English is outstanding and their portrayal of psychological, emotional, and spiritual downfall is absolutely terrifying. For instance, as the camera closes in on Dench’s face during her “Out damned spot!” speech,” her “Oh, oh, oh” is transformed into a deafening, horrible scream that seems to come from the bottom of her soul: the viewer cannot help, at this point, but be pulled deeply into the despairing soul of Dench’s doomed Lady Macbeth.
Although this Macbeth seems to come quite close to Ian McKellen’s concept of the “Himalayas” of Shakespearean interpretation (at least in terms of raw emotive power), no single production can ever tout itself to be the elucidative adaptation. Each play included in the Thames collection approaches Shakespeare from a slightly different angle and each includes flashes of absolute brilliance. For those who never tire of the great playwright, there can never be enough attempts to interpret him: every new endeavor is simply another gem in the Bard’s jewel-laden crown. The Thames collection is such a gem.