‘Great Shakespeare Speeches’

16th June 2016

On Monday I wrote about the recording of the Rambert dance work Tomorrow that is featured on the Shakespeare Lives 2016 website. I am following that up today with a pointer to a quite different page that I curated for the website. Great Shakespeare Speeches features extracts from a range of Royal Shakespeare Company productions adapted for television. What follows is a version of my text together with embeds of three of the clips (which my colleague Todd MacDonald edited). Do visit the page itself for all twelve of the speeches.

Broadcast on 23 April, Shakespeare Live! From the RSC was only the most recent collaboration between television in Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company. ITV with Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth (1979) and Channel 4 with Nicholas Nickleby (1982) have both produced adaptations of RSC productions, but it has been the BBC that has most consistently recorded great stagings of Shakespeare by the company. Fortuitously, most of these have survived in the archives, and they allow us to see today definitive performances by actors including Ian Holm, Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave and David Tennant (above, in Hamlet, 2009). More recently, the RSC itself has been screening its productions live in cinemas, and these broadcasts also feature exceptional actors like Antony Sher and Alex Hassell in some of theatre’s greatest roles.

For Great Shakespeare Speeches, I was delighted to select from these RSC riches a dozen well-known moments from the plays performed by wonderful actors, either alone or in dialogue with one or more of their peers. There is Vanessa Redgrave as a youthful, flighty, sexy Rosalind in As You Like It from 1963; this was the performance of which the critic Michael Billington wrote recently, “I have never seen a more exciting demonstration of the ecstasy of love.” From Henry VI Part III, captured as part of the History plays cycle The Wars of the Roses in 1965, Peggy Ashcroft as a vengeful Queen Margaret tears up the screen as she humiliates the Duke of York, played by Donald Sinden, and smears across his face the blood of his dead son Rutland. And more recently, from the 2015 production of Othello, Hugh Quarshie, perhaps best known as Ric Griffin in Holby City, is driven by his obsessive (and unfounded jealousy) to contemplate murdering his beloved Desdemona.

In snipping from the panorama of the RSC on screen I wanted to feature fragments from a range of the plays, bringing together iconic moments like Portia’s speech that begins “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” from The Merchant of Venice, beautifully performed by Patsy Ferran in 2015, with equally exquisite but perhaps lesser known words like the discourse on love by Berowne, here Edward Bennett in 2014, in Love’s Labour’s Lost. And then there were certain speeches that no selection can pass over, including “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” from Julius Caesar, spoken in the Forum by Mark Antony, incarnated in the series by Ray Fearon in a television film version made in 2012. Equally essential is “Now is the winter of our discontent” from the opening of Richard III, especially when it is given such a glitteringly evil and yet winning performance as that by Ian Holm in 1965.

As well as offering us precious access to defining performances like these, and also David Warner’s astonishingly vulnerable King Henry VI from 1965 and David Tennant’s 2009 Hamlet, these extracts also demonstrate a fascinating variety of the ways in which over the past five decades Shakespeare on stage has been interpreted for television and for live cinema.

In late 1962 the production of As You Like It transported Vanessa Redgrave and the rest of the RSC cast, as well as its huge oak tree of a set, from the stage at Stratford-upon-Avon into a television studio in west London to make a recording with electronic cameras. Two years later, the BBC travelled in the opposite direction, taking two outside broadcast units to Stratford to capture the trilogy of The Wars of the Roses on its vast and effectively immovable steel set designed by John Bury. As You Like It has an appropriately light and airy quality, even if you can occasionally see the joins in the scenery, whereas The Wars of the Roses is located in a dark and desolate screen world of betrayals and blood.

Fifty years on from the taping of The Wars of the Roses, the cameras were back in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, albeit now in colour and with more sophisticated sound, to broadcast Henry V live to cinemas. Hamlet, however, was shot using a single camera over three weeks at a location for which the original stage design had been entirely re-thought. This meant that every shot could be composed and lit with a focus and concentration impossible to achieve on a single night in a theatre.

As Great Shakespeare Speeches collectively suggests, each production approach has advantages and challenges, and comparing and contrasting these excerpts with television’s new Shakespeare productions in 2016 should be both instructive and entertaining. But mostly these excerpts are offered simply to provide a moment of delight, courtesy of some of our finest actors and of words that are as fresh and meaningful today as they were four hundred years ago.

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