‘A happy and a joyful time’

12th May 2012

So, Shakespeare lovers, just how great a time is this! Generations to come shall likely think themselves accursed they were not here. In the theatre we have the World Shakespeare Festival 2012 and the Globe to Globe season (which may or may not be linked – it’s hard to tell from their respective websites). Having sampled Two Roses for Richard III from the former (some great moments but also a bit hard going at times), tomorrow I’m off to Shakespeare’s Globe for the Henry VI trilogy played – in Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian – by companies from the Balkans. Remember too that recordings of all the Globe to Globe presentations are appearing on The SpacePericles from the National Theatre of Greece has just been posted. And as you may also have noticed the BBC is more than doing its bit with the Shakespeare Unlocked season. Today’s post rounds up my reactions to some of the recent offerings, including The King and the Playwright, Shakespeare in Italy and Shakespeare’s Restless World.

The contrast between 2012 and the last time the BBC turned its collective sights on Shakespeare could not be greater. Back in 2005 ShakespeaRe-told (I guess someone liked the title) managed to be a major season across the BBC without showing a single production of any of the plays (the web site remains online in an archived form). But we did get four film dramas in modern settings that employed Shakespeare’s plots and the likes of Billie Piper and Rufus Sewell; the 60 Second Shakespeare Challenge (yes indeed, ‘create your own interpretation of Shakespeare in one minute’) and the 7NK Murder Mystery Game online (you’ll be sad to learn it is no longer playable).

At that time there was a scandalous lack of collective confidence about the BBC’s mission. Seven years on things are rather different. We have five major productions of the plays (to come in June and July) and a clutch of more or less serious documentaries. The television treat to date is the three-parter with Professor James Shapiro, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History.

Professor of English at Columbia, Shapiro is the author of the exceptional 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. This compelling exploration of the events of that one year illuminates wonderfully the plays on which it is believed Will was working during those twelve months. Shapiro’s focus in the new films is on the plays written after 1603, beginning with Measure for Measure, but again he beautifully draws together a historical narrative with analysis of the concerns of the dramas.

My frustration with the films (produced by Steve Clarke for Green Bay Media) is how visually impoverished they feel. I know just how hard it is to bring to life a historical topic from four centuries ago, but there are an awful lot of shots of Shapiro traipsing around London, climbing the stairs of the British Library and taking his seat in Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Disappointingly, the series makes only a very sparing use of dramatisations from the plays. There are just a few fragments from recent RSC productions (and clips from Ralph Fiennes’ film of Coriolanus) but too often they feel pinched and parsimonious (although I would exclude the treatment of The Winter’s Tale in episode three from this criticism). Surely here was a wonderful opportunity to bring together drama and documentary in a particularly imaginative way. Even so, Shapiro’s script is very strong, and you have six days left to watch the third episode on iPlayer.

Of Shakespeare in Italy with Francesco da Mosto, perhaps the nicest thing I can say is that it is beautifully filmed romantic b******s. Credit where it’s due: camerawork by Mike Garner; the series producer, director and editor is Andrea Carnevali. The two films are made with verve and imagination and great pictures (not to mention spectacular Italian city- and landscapes). But let’s be clear, much of the pair is simply and straightforwardly twaddle.

Fifteen minutes into film one, for example, Francesco is happy to tell us that, ‘It is 1592 … [and] Shakespeare is newly and passionately in love.’ Say what? So just who was the great romance of the writer’s early years in London? Well, Emilia Bassano, apparently. She, Francesco is certain, is The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. And ‘most scholars’ agree with him. ‘Shakespeare,’ apparently, ‘celebrates his great love for ‘er in his Sonnets.’

To support this, Francesco brings out some English bloke who supposedly is distantly related to Emilia. He it is who opines that, ‘I think the physical affair wasn’t that long, perhaps eighteen months, two years maximum. But I think the emotional affair stayed with Shakespeare all his life.’ Oh, come on. As I say, twaddle – for which, need I say, there is not a shred, not one scintilla, of evidence.

So that’s decades of the most rigorous, scrupulous and precise historical analysis tossed into the canals of Francesco’s beloved Venezia. Never mind that many of the Sonnets are explicitly concerned with same-sex physical passion. What about that, eh, Francesco? Who cares about the truth? Print – or rather, film – the (long-outdated) legend.

Thank goodness, then, for Neil MacGregor’s thoughtful and fascinating Radio 4 series Shakespeare’s Restless World (you can download all twenty parts here). MacGregor examines twenty objects as a way to understand the material, social and cultural worlds of late Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and he is excellent on the first stirrings of globalisation, on plagues and sex and eating at the theatre and much more. BBC Radio 3 has also produced three immaculate new productions of Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest – and if you hurry (the offer expires tomorrow) you can download all three to keep.

There is plenty more to come of course, including our BBC Four film of the RSC’s new production of Julius Caesar and four Sam Mendes-produced films of Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V. And let’s not forget that beyond 2012 we are coming up to two major Shakespeare anniversaries – the 450th anniversary of his birth in 2014 and the 400th of his death in 2016. Let’s hope that the BBC in particular, for all its engagement this year, will not feel that it has ‘done Shakespeare’ when these important occasions roll around.

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