From a not “proper” Shakespeare producer

From a not “proper” Shakespeare producer

Grrrr! I know, I know that you should never respond to criticism, but today I can’t resist a little rant. I am also by disposition a retiring individual not much given to trumpeting Illuminations’ achievements. But take a look at the following from Peter Stanford’s admiring interview with Sir Richard Eyre in today’s Daily Telegraph, ‘The BBC “wasn’t taking Shakespeare seriously”. Sir Richard has directed Henry IV part 1 and 2 for The Hollow Crown, the second of which is broadcast tonight on BBC Two. Stanford asks him this question:

Why, though, has he been so very keen for so long to get “proper” Shakespeare back on the BBC (as opposed to the corporation’s more recent standby, filmed versions of stage plays broadcast on BBC Four)?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am enraged by the idea (which goes unchallenged by Sir Richard) that The Hollow Crown is “proper” Shakespeare and that our Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet with David Tennant, our Rupert Goold-directed Macbeth with Patrick Stewart, and our recent Julius Caesar, again with the RSC and like Hamlet directed by the company’s new Artistic Director Greg Doran, are somehow “standby” – and inferior, not to mention not “proper” – productions. 

The Hollow Crown films have each enjoyed far bigger budgets than the Shakespeare films that we have produced for the BBC over the past three years. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that you could have financed Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar together for the cost of just one of the Hollow Crown films.

It is certainly also true that each of our three began life as a stage production before each was taken to a location, re-thought for the screen and shot in a dynamic, imaginative way using the language of contemporary television drama. Just why, I wonder, does this not make for ‘proper’ Shakespeare?

As for audiences, I believe that Hamlet on Boxing Day 2009 (on BBC Two, please note Peter Stanford) attracted just about exactly the same audience as Richard II – around 950,000 viewers on the first broadcast. Once again, not ‘proper’? The Hollow Crown has had a great press – but so too did our films – as can be seen from my collections of reviews and blog responses here, here and here.

So let’s engage briefly on the terrain that really matters: the imaginative treatment of the text. I am, as my earlier blog attests, a huge admirer of Rupert Goold’s thrilling Richard II. But I must own to having been significantly less enamoured of Henry IV part one (I have yet to see tonight’s part two). On a first viewing on the big screen at BFI Southbank I felt it to be a somewhat flat and conventional take on the play. It is hampered by some unremarkable (and under-populated) battle scenes, although redeemed by a truly remarkable Falstaff from Simon Russell Beale.

I am also a touch disappointed that The Hollow Crown as a whole chose to don with such enthusiasm the medieval mantle. Horses and castles and very big swords are all very well, but perhaps it might have been bolder – and more stimulating – to explore a more contemporary approach, just as Julius Caesar finds contemporary resonances by setting the play in a modern African state. Nonetheless, both approaches are perfectly “proper”.

All things considered – and although these things are hugely subjective and although such claims are hostages to fortune and although I am hardly an impartial judge – I am prepared to assert that Greg Doran’s Hamlet and Rupert Goold’s Macbeth and indeed Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar are each in their way ‘better’ than Sir Richard’s Henry IV part one. But then perhaps you would expect nothing else.

What I would not dream of saying, however, is that Henry IV part one is not “proper” Shakespeare? And I only wish that Peter Stanford and, by implication, Sir Richard Eyre, had had a similar understanding, not to mention a comparable courtesy.