Despite still being half way through my Hitchcock marathon (Vertigo is actually starting to grow on me and The Man Who Knew Too Much remake reminded me with the taxidermist digression that Hitch also used many extraneous but interesting sequences in his work to throw off the viewer or to provide a brief comic respite from the main action) I decided to have a brief break to refresh my palate, and in a fit of mad ambition decided to open up the big box of BBC Shakespeare adaptations instead! I’m not sure how many I’ll get through but I thought it might be fun to put up some of my impressions of the series and the plays themselves here.
I actually have some memories of watching one or two of these BBC productions at school - I'm pretty sure it was one of the Roman pieces and since our school wasn't very adventurous in its Shakespeare choices I'd have to assume that it was the adaptation of Julius Caesar. I'm ashamed to admit though that it was purely the size of the enormous boxed set of VHS tapes of the series that caught my attention and awe more in those days! It looked fascinating, though I'm pretty sure part of the fascination was due to it being one of those sets that was kept locked away by the librarian due to its valuable and unwieldy nature with access only allowed through special request, which sadly added an extra feeling of inaccessibility to the plays themselves in a strange way. Anyway all this is just a preamble to my finally having picked up the box set, big in itself even with the DVDs housed in their thin cases, and finally having the chance to watch the plays at my leisure.
I have to again thank MichaelB for the Screenonline critiques of many of the plays - I have decided to tackle them in transmission order for no particular reason other than maybe to experience them as they appeared on television and because of the general feeling expressed in the notes that the plays became more accomplished as they progressed. I should also admit to there being many gaps in my Shakespeare knowledge (notably all the historical plays and once we get past Midsummer Nights Dream, As You Like It and Love's Labour's Lost I'm pretty lacking in knowledge of the comedies too),so I'm looking to this set to provide me with some introductions to texts that I was never taught in school and have never seen adapted elsewhere. I'm also of course going to approach commenting from the point of view of fun rather than as an academic exercise, as I'm sure most of what could be said about these plays has been done elsewhere and far more eloquently than I could ever hope to manage.
Romeo & Juliet
Starting in transmission order however meant that the first play was Romeo & Juliet. I love the play itself with the naive idealistic innocence of the young lovers thinking that their marriage will bring a long running feud to an immediate end contrasting with the youthful childish fighting between Mercutio and Tybalt - themselves little understanding the devastating consequences their constant fighting will have both to themselves and to others, but unable to stop an almost obsessive need to violently confront each other. (Mercutio and Tybalt's deaths, while sad, are 'good' deaths since they fought for honour and revenge, so could be accepted as being necessary and noble while at the same time helping to fuel fires of vengeance. Romeo and Juliet's deaths are the opposite of that, mutual love rather than hate causes them to kill each other through making them both wish to commit suicide, and which in itself acts to reverse the cycle of revenge and hatred - at least momentarily)
However it seems a difficult piece to perform effectively in order to show this youthful bravado or idealism without regard for consequence while at the same time keeping the audience's sympathies from being lost as they see easily avoided tragedy being fully played out (though this does let Romeo have a nice little sense of premonition of impending doom even before he reaches the party and meets Juliet - that no good can come of crashing a ball held by a sworn enemy, though of course the explosion of violence Tybalt attempts is diverted for a more unexpected and slow burning fuse of destruction). There needs to be a sense of the problems occuring and snowballing due to naturally arising character flaws rather than schematic plotting forcing the issues.
I may be in the minority of finding the set up, quickie marriage and circumstances that prevent Romeo being informed of the plot to fake Juliet's death falling more to the schematic deus ex machina side, which in a way has often lead me to judge this play more harshly than plays which incorporate that deus ex machina inside the narrative itself, such as the plottings in Titus Andronicus or the feud between the fairy king and queen in Midsummer Night's Dream that impacts on the human characters, for all that these two plays in particular get pushed to extremes in different ways. (And interesting that Rohmer’s now final film Romance of Astrea and Celadon seems to have some of this influence in it)
It leaves a lot more resting on the actor's performances, and their charisma in their roles, than it should. More than any of the other plays perhaps you have to be so totally invested in the plight of the young lovers that you can forgive the manipulation towards their double suicide as being inevitable and necessary as instead of their marriage bringing their feuding families together the mutual and total devastation becomes a much stronger bond.
I felt that Rebecca Saire was particularly good as Juliet, as was Michael Hordern of course in his ditzy yet authoritative paternal figure. Celia Johnson as the nurse was perfect - both light and gently encouraging in the joy she has at helping the young lovers, their love maybe letting her experience first love again by proxy, then maybe hurting by the overturning of the hopes she had for the couple turning to the initial tragedy of the death of Tybalt devasting in her pragmatic betrayal of Juliet by agreeing with her parent's insistence that Paris should be married instead. But her pain at discovering Juliet's 'death' (whether faked or genuine it represents the irrevocable severing of ties between Juliet and her nurse), is so beautifully played the audience feels that the nurse was always doing what she thought would be in Juliet's best interests - perhaps the truest tragedy is that of the nurse (and the Friar) in seeing their hopes and dreams utterly destroyed, with the feeling that they aided in that destruction more than prevented it. (I think the Friar's initial speech about the plants in the garden is probably the highlight of the entire play. The 'Romeo, Romeo' balcony scene may be more famous but often plays almost parodically lovey-dovey, especially in the many anguished partings and running back to each other that takes place at the end of the scene)
I also felt Jacqueline Hill was excellent as Lady Capulet - loving of her daughter yet also distant and manipulative of her as a child would be of her dolls. The way that she expresses hope for revenge against Romeo after Tybalt's death is beautifully done - the despair turning to anger that is a parent's perogative after a child's death, but at the same time the anger is a self-justification and a continuance of the feud that left Tybalt dead in the first place. And the hasty jump into the arranged marriage of Juliet with Paris is performed for reasons of security of the blood line, but ends up being the catalyst for the final tragedy - once everything is lost, feuds have to be forgotten.
Alan Rickman as Tybalt was excellent in a performance that calls for bemused, barely suppressed rage at the impertinence of Romeo and Mercutio, quick to offence and looking for an excuse to fight as much as Mercutio is, though Mercutio does not help matters! Anthony Andrews as Mercutio is an interesting, annoying performance which I felt was perfectly appropriate - the character himself is a flamboyantly irritating character able to speak truths but easily ignorable by others due to their own flaws or position in society preventing them from being taken seriously (a version of the Fool in King Lear? This actually brings up a neat benefit of watching a number of the plays together - to see the way that archetypal characters and behaviour is tackled in different ways in different plays, with different outcomes depending on the weighting of the character in a particular work, or the 'light' or 'dark' nature of the text itself. In this case it is the new, unformed generation that is destroyed by the sins of the older, whereas in Lear it is the younger generation again but one which has begun to learn the rules of the game for themselves to become victors rather than victims).
I had some issues with Patrick Ryecart as Romeo though - I found him a little fey and callow as a romantic lead, though again perhaps that might be the best way to play the character as apart from the initial decision to go to the ball (which he is pushed into anyway) and falling in love with Juliet, Romeo has little particular impact on events beyond begging other people to help him in some fashion. He is truly "more sinned against than sinning", so to speak.
This was my first encounter with the play and I was extremely impressed by the impact it had on me, though I wonder if that might have been because it was free of negative connotations of having to study it for school and all the pressures that brings that can destroy the enjoyment of a text?
After John Gielgud's brief appearance as the chorus in Romeo & Juliet, he takes on a larger role here as John of Gaunt (strangely as in the notorious Caligula film, Gielgud takes a role of someone who provides some order to the proceedings, and with whose early death seems to allow room for the upheavals that follow to occur). Charles Gray is also impressive as his tormented brother (as the last of the line of many brothers sacrificed to war he brings to mind Titus Andronicus, especially in his willingness to give over his son to Henry when he finds evidence of plotting behind the king's back), especially good in the silently anguished reactions he has throughout the latter half of the play. But everyone is put into the shade by Derek Jacobi's impressively nuanced performance as Richard II, both unlikeably petty and a poor leader and wronged against at the same time.
The play feels very much about 'soft' and 'hard' wielding of power. Richard is undone by his soft wielding of power to defuse situations that would normally have called for harsher punishments. ‘Soft’ power is kindlier but also by its lack of harshness seems less motivated and more whimsical. This ‘softness’ also contains a sense of allowing room for others to plot and scheme without fear of being mercilessly crushed. For instance the confrontation between Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray that is taken to the point of a duel to the death but is then stopped at Richard's whim and both instead banished. Richard reveals a rather petty side here in banishing Mowbray indefinitely and Henry for ten years, reduced to six as a gesture to his father. In exposing his obvious favouritism and seeming to do Henry a favour he incurs Mowbray's premonition-like curse and also reveals a tendency to impetuous decisions as well as a weakness of will that leads to doubts about his fitness to govern. By trying to please everyone, while also doing that which benefits him the most, he invites revolution and seems to acknowledge it in the paranoid seeming request of Mowbray and Bolingbroke never to plot anything together or even meet while both are banished from the kingdom. It is a solution that causes more problems than it solves, even while it avoids bloodshed.
There is an interesting exploration of the limits of a king's power associated with the sanctuary of England itself, with it being in the king's best interests to make the world beyond seem as wild and unsavory a prospect as death (even if he gets his wife from foreign kingdoms!) so that his ultimate punishment of explusion can seem as horrific as getting thrown out of the Garden of Eden (plus, shockingly, you may even have to learn another language while there!)
It therefore makes it ironic that with the death of Henry's father John of Gaunt, it is Richard's decision to take all the money from the estate to fund his war with Ireland that brings about his downfall! Plus Gaunt rails at Richard himself for ‘leasing’ the country out to foreign interests and abandoning the perceived foundations of English society through his casual rule, particularly in the discussion with his brother the Duke of York of the way England in held in thrall by Italian customs.
This is where you get the quotably reverent speech about “this scepter’d isle…this happy breed of men…this teeming womb of royal kings fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth renowned for their deeds as far from home from Christian service and true chivalry as is the sepulchre in subborn Jewry of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son” etc which espouses England’s greatness and how things are falling apart, but which is just as much about John of Gaunt’s anger at his son’s banishment from the land and the ongoing prerogative of the old and those nearing death to complain that things just are not what they used to be as a kind of self-comfort against the knowledge that they are leaving the world! As well as a thinly veiled dig at the currently vacillatingly weak King Richard, it also brings up the idea of the curse being pronounced as being a kind of narcissism on the part of the curser, which also crops up in Lear. This complexity usually gets missed of course when elements from the speech can be quoted in a right wing political context to celebrate an isolationist or purity of blood ideal. Gielgud is incredibly impressive in this final speech, and really delivers an authoritatively righteous and angry performance railing against the King that hangs over the rest of the film however, despite these other discernable nuances to the text and character's motivation.
The way that John of Gaunt earlier in the play has a confrontation with his now assassinated brother’s distraught wife also brings up ideas of all consuming revenge (more fully expressed elsewhere in Shakespeare) as she rails against Mowbray as she is decided that he is definitely her husband’s murderer and also attacks John of Gaunt for not standing up for his own son more, even if he had doubts about him. There is also the sense that after their scene together, the wife is planning to kill herself as the proper response to losing her husband and feeling wronged, rather than pursuing revenge.
There is an interesting complication of sympathies as Richard seems over privileged and cruel in the way that he jokes about hoping that he arrives too late to see John of Gaunt before he dies, his over hasty land grab once the death is announced, and his anger at Henry being more of a ‘man of the people’ than he is. However this petty and seemingly paranoid cruelty eventually seems to have some basis in truth - while it doesn’t excuse Richard’s attempts to take Henry’s lands, which is the main trigger for his downfall, the popular uprising which follows among ‘the common people’ to reinstate Henry proves that Richard has never really had the respect of his subjects, just a subservient loyalty based on tradition. Though having loyalty or respect or not among ‘the people’ is really neither here or there except when there is a more charismatic potential King around to garner support, and Henry proves himself more than willing to push past just reclaiming his inheritance and using the groundswell of support he has to go beyond righting wrongs and actually depose the ruling monarch.
Would he have done this if he were not banished from the kingdom or not? The play seems to leave this an open question, although the initial dispute between Henry and Mowbray, in which Mowbray seemingly prophesies Richard’s fate before he is forever banished, comes about due to an accusation after an assassination, which suggests at least someone was making moves for power at this early stage.
It was interesting to see the motif of woodland meetings (Henry after having broken the rule of banishment meets the Duke of York before they march on Richard) and the working, rural class having a clear vision of the entire situation, viewing events wryly aware of their lack of influence on the course of events. Of course these ideas run through many of the other Shakespeare plays, emphasised to a greater or lesser extent
At this mid-point of the play Richard and Henry exchange places, as Henry becomes more regally aloof, while Richard more human, making it seem much more that the position of monarch necessitates a detachment from the people. If a monarch does have a relationship with a close group of friends or advisors in power it taints their reign - Richard’s cruelty is allowed to have free reign and flourish while he is in the company of a close circle of friends Bushy and Bagot and the Duke of Aurmerle. Once they are removed from him, along with his position, he becomes more sympathetic. It is also interesting that the final action of Richard’s assassination is carried out by people who feel that they are doing Henry a favour by their actions – they still think they can relate to the new King as an equal, and perform deeds on behalf of him that they think he will approve of, instead of recognising that they are now only subjects to follow the monarch’s explicit orders without independent action of their own on their behalf.
The amazing scenes on the battlements and in the Coronation where Richard is advised not to rock the boat and go along with a non-violent handover of power, systematically having his illusions of control stripped from him one by one (the armies; the allies; the advisors; the trappings of the position as the armour and the finery are stripped over succeeding scenes; eventually the divine right to rule until death, although that one is conveniently and neatly resolved with his final assassination!), while he has feelings of ownership and right mixed with feelings of anger and growing awareness of his abandonment by his people, with this realisation that this situation may be due to his actions and a new and late awareness of the responsibility he had, and which he wasted, torments him.
Shakespeare seems to love characters becoming self aware only after the damage has been done by or to them. In the comedies these complications can usually be set right with a happy ending for all – in the histories and of course the tragedies the only restoration (or resetting) of norms comes about through death, as the institutions of church, state and families continue while the individuals within them are sacrificed for that continuance (perhaps the Roman plays are the exception in this regard, as there the individual tragedies can stand for the end of a whole society).
Jacobi is absolutely breathtaking throughout the play but especially in these scenes, an absolutely phenomenal and difficult performance of a complex part. Changing from feyness and complacency, through shock and blistering anger, to eventual pained acceptance of his new condition he is mesmerising throughout.
I thought that this production was very well filmed, revealing and hiding actors in long, fluid camera movements that manage to capture the essence of the meaning of the scene just through composition and placement of action – it felt far more distinctive and interesting than the rather stagey and flat framing of the actors in Romeo and Juliet. Especially in the Coronation scene where the emphasis is mostly on Jacobi’s magnificent railing the camera still manages to include every important element in the scene that manages to counterpoint or comment on the scene being played out without undermining it (the newly enthroned Henry; the Crown and sceptre on its pillow; the Duke of York in torment occasionally captured on the side of the screen), pulling in for the intimate moments on Richard, but never making it entirely his show.
The post-coronation scene of Richard meeting his French wife for the last time on his way to the Tower was also extremely moving, suggesting an actual love that had grown in between them despite their marriage of convenience. It also makes me wonder if there is much connection to the more famous, and far more cruel “get thee to a nunnery” scene from Hamlet?
After those powerful scenes, I’m afraid I found the scene between the Duke of York and his wife (albeit nicely played by Wendy Hiller) a little bit farcical, as they find out about their son, the Duke of Aurmerle’s plot to murder Henry, and set out either to condemn him (the Duke, as mentioned above in sacrifice seeming like Titus Andronicus), or to save him (the Duke’s wife in an almost hysterical state). It is perhaps important to give an audience some respite from the heavy business of deposing a King, especially given the final assassination to come which counterpoints this unsuccessful murder plot played for laughs, but it does feel a little too broad after the intimacy of the preceding scenes.
I agree with Michael’s comments in his piece on the play that the decision to separate Richard’s final speech to himself in his cell into time passing dissolves was very nicely done, suggesting that the worst critic and tormentor anyone can have is really their own conscience.
As You Like It
I was a little antipathetic towards this play at first, coming after such an extremely powerful piece like Richard II, I wasn’t sure if a cross dressing piece of fluffy fun would hold me to the same extent! And the opening didn’t really help much, as actors seemed uncomfortably broad in setting up their roles which, combined with a muffled quality to the dialogue likely as a result of the decision to film outdoors for all but a couple of scenes, was a little off putting at first, but I soon got used to it.
However once all the characters were on their journeys into the woods and the romantic complications began, the piece really hit its stride. The way that the trappings of civilisation - power; being first born and so being the only brother to be educated and cultured; even celebrity in the rather overblown wrestler, not above a quick kick to the crotch when his opponent is down (with associated “ooh’s” of sympathy from the watching crowd!), being bested by our amateur hero - actively works to hide fundamental human decency, and causes much of the anger and hatred in the world (even setting brother against brother at the opening) is set against the rural idyll that the characters find themselves in, with little to do but tend the land and make love to each other. It even allows for the consideration of same sex relationships in a comfortable manner, though heterosexuality is always present as the ‘correct’ alternative that it is inevitable that all the characters will embrace at the end of the play after their various dalliances! The relationship between Orlando and Ganymede (Rosaline cross-dressed as a ‘lusty youth’) in which Ganymede woos Orlando by pretending to be the woman he is pining for, which Orlando willingly plays along with, becomes surprisingly erotic and long drawn out! (This homoerotic relationship actually allows Orlando to express his longing for Rosaline in a way that he is too tongue-tied to do when face to face with the lady herself, making it seem as if it is a necessary stage to go through before he can truly be with Rosaline without mediation). Though the way that near the play’s end the question of whether the disguise actually ever works to deceive or not is quite funnily toyed with!
As with Romeo, it probably helps that the male lead Orlando has to be played with a kind of callow blankness to allow for a certain amount of audience suspension of disbelief (though the actor here is much better than the chap who played Romeo and seems to be having some fun with the ‘is he aware or isn’t he?’ shenanigans). I’m beginning to feel that the male leads are never really the most interesting characters in Shakespeare – they may put the story into motion and their fates may be important at the climax, but after that it is the characters around them and inspired by them who take on the greatest life and interest, at least for this audience member.
I also liked the way that once everyone has been set up in the woods the play becomes a sort of experiment in throwing different combinations of characters together and seeing how they relate together, and what new light they shed on each other’s characters. It is a nice way of developing fully rounded characters for the audience by experiencing how they taken on various different roles in their interactions.
Helen Mirren of course is wonderful in her role, though I was also very impressed by Angharad Rees as the friend she elopes with, as she seemingly takes a lot of delight in the light and fun role, enjoying the way her friend's decision to dress as a man takes all sorts of unexpected turns! Interestingly the most impressive part of the production is the final wrapping up, as all the loose threads are quickly tied up without having to get too many extraneous characters involved (a lion features in reports, as does the Orlando’s bad brother’s conversion to good. And the death of the evil, overly grumpy Duke whose banishment of the good Duke to the forest and threats to kill Rosaline leading to their flight into the forest, is treated in an offhand ‘oh, by the way he’s dead so everything is fine now!’ manner that gets rid of a problem while maintaining the light mood!). The wonderful final epilogue direct to the audience is beautifully performed by Mirren, as the rest of the cast dance off into the woods before she joins them, is a great way to end, inviting the audience to participate in their own hopeful world of love through the continuance of their own love lives!
Last edited by colinr0380 on Wed Mar 31, 2010 8:14 am, edited 3 times in total.