Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Complete Works of Shakespeare on DVD

I haven't added to this blog for some time--mostly because I've been extremely busy. Now, however, I have come up with a topic which can be added to regularly for several months without too much effort on my part: namely, the BBC's issuing of their late seventies and early eighties complete cycle of Shakespeare plays on DVD. A few days ago, I bought this complete collection for about $250 and have already watched 3 plays. I remember seeing some of the plays at the time they were first shown, but I was at university then and didn't pay too much attention. Some of the first thoughts that occur to me are:

1) Such a collection reminds us that Shakespeare was a superb user of language. This might seem an obvious point, but too often the "bard" is viewed as some kind of phenomenon of nature that transcended both time and place. Rather, he was the right person in the right place at the right time, able to fully word and express that lush flowering of the English tongue during the English renaissance.

2) Point one itself gives us food for thought. All the progress made by the human race has been through the use of differing linguistic codes, and it is sobering to realise that someone who lived around 400 years ago was able to use language better than we can ourselves. By association we assume that the England of that time was highly literate and happy and willing to listen to endless quips, puns on language, conceits and metaphors--as well as poetry of the highest order. I fear that today England has no such writers and no such audience. So much for the liberal argument of continuous progress! Perhaps we are in the process of using our languages to invest the future in advanced technological codes. However interesting and satisfying a process this may be, it can only include Shakespeare and other poets in the most oblique way: those of us who still cling to the old signs will never find, through all the ages, a finer exponent of more traditional codes than Shakespeare.

3) Anyone, in our world of a ten-minute attention span, who conscientiously listens to Shakespeare's dramas, will find them still eminently comprehensible: the idea of a modern English "translation" is both absurd and insulting. Absurd because anyone with half an ear to listen, who calls English his/her first language, will have no trouble in understanding. Insulting because it is offensive to believe that the words of one who used language so excellently could ever be the same if changed into a more "comprehensible" version.

4) Perhaps we are in danger of becoming too sophisticated for Shakespeare. Today there are just too many distractions around us for our young people to delight in the words of Shakespeare as previous generations once did. No doubt these densely worded dramas don't work too well on an iPod: better to divide the attention with an inoffensive 3 minute song. However, if Shakespeare is falling out of fashion, then that says more about the present level of culture amongst our young people than anything interesting or insightful about Shakespeare himself.

As other thoughts occur to me during this series of brief reviews I will state them. To the reviews then! Each play is scored out of 10 on the basis of personal whim (impressionistic marking they call it). The order is merely the order in which I watch the plays. Finally, it will be no part of my remit to give synopses of the individual plays--these can easily enough be found elsewhere.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE: 9.85 out of 10. It's hard to see how this late "dark" comedy could have been performed better. The acting is wonderful throughout. In particular Kenneth Folley as the Duke is quite superb in his multi-faceted ubiquitousness. However, all the cast seems to have been expertly chosen. A special mention is due to John McEnery's Lucio--that tainted and deceitful gentleman. His scurrilous comments against the Duke, to the Duke's own face, (while the latter is dressed in the guise of a friar) are really quite hilarious! Tim Piggott-Smith, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Strauli and Jacqueline Pearce all contribute to the setting of a standard of excellence that all future productions in the series will be judged against.

TWELTH NIGHT: 9.75. Maintaining the high standard set by M for M. This was one of the few plays in the series that I saw when it was first shown. Felicity Kendall, although starting slowly, suddenly runs into a streak of classy form and makes the part of Viola/Cesario her own. All future Viola's--at least in our generation--will be judged against Kendall's setting of a standard of excellence in the role. The production is lusciously extravagant which is very much in tune with the mood of the play itself--and isn't Felicity Kendall beautiful in that blue feathered hat? The other actors have also been expertly chosen and a special mention must go to Robert Hardy, who as Sir Toby Belch, is the epitome of crafty drunkenness. Annette Crosby surprised me as Olivia's maid. I remembered her mostly as Queen Victoria in the series "Edward VII", but here she is light and winsome--even sexy. Sinead Cussack makes a suitably beautiful Olivia and minor parts are all excellently realised.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: 8.75. Still very good. A nuanced and well directed production. All the supporting cast is wonderful: the problem lies in the choice of the two central characters. Both Robert Lindsay (of Citizen Smith fame) and Cherie Lunghi (beautiful in "The Manageress" and all those coffee adverts) are, perhaps, a little light-weight for these difficult roles. Both are fine actors, but for me Benedick should be rather more sardonic and supercillious, and Beatrice less of a highly strung girl. Still, while the production may not be perfect, it is undoubtedly genial and likeable.


Blogger Ruth said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


7:22 PM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

Thanks, Ruth. It's nice to know there are people out there who actually read this blog.

12:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home