Out of the past

25th March 2013

The Screen Plays season of television adaptations of Jacobean tragedies begins tonight at BFI Southbank. We open with a remarkable 1965 production of Thomas Middleton’s play from 1621 Women Beware Women, which I have written about in detail here. The screening will be followed a discussion with Dame Diana Rigg (who plays Bianca) and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Gregory Doran. The show is sold out but if I get news of any returns I’ll announce them on the @Illuminations Twitter feed. And you can still purchase tickets for future screenings, including the wonderful 1964 Hamlet at Elsinore (above) with Christopher Plummer on the afternoon of Easter Monday. (Yes, I know the play was written around 1599-1600 and so is not strictly Jacobean.) Meanwhile, below is my Introduction to the season which argues that these great plays remain relevant and resonant today.

‘Vengeance begins,’ observes Beatrice-Joanna in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s play The Changeling. ‘Murder, I see, is followed by more sins.’ Vengeance, murder and sin are most certainly among the preoccupations of the ‘tragedies of blood’ written in the early 17th century. We might also contribute to the list madness, severed limbs and scenes of carnage, as well as human sexuality in its myriad forms.

While British television has sustained a strong – and largely reverential – relationship with the plays of our ‘national poet’ William Shakespeare, the dark and psychologically complex dramas written by Thomas Middleton, John Webster, John Ford and others in the decades just after the Bard’s pre-eminence have enjoyed far fewer adaptations.

Should we ascribe the lack of productions to distaste on the part of drama executives towards the abject subject matter of the plays? Or has it been a concern about their often ambiguous morality? Or might it be resistance by the medium to the political challenges to be found in the texts to the hierarchies of class, of privilege and of gender inequality?

Despite, or more likely because of, such concerns the murky worlds of revenge tragedy have attracted some of television’s most accomplished and original directors. And for such a comparatively small corpus, the plays have been realised with a striking range of production approaches.

For the earliest of television’s location-shot classic dramas, Philip Saville nearly 50 years ago videotaped the greatest of all revenge tragedies, Hamlet, at the site in Denmark which Shakespeare imagined for its action. James MacTaggart also took multiple outside-broadcast cameras to an authentically Jacobean location to frame John Webster’s compelling drama The Duchess of Malfi.

Working with Jacobean settings and costumes, directors including Gordon Flemyng and Simon Curtis have demonstrated the flexibility of the television studio and the possibilities it offers for visual flair. Roland Joffé transported John Ford’s incest drama ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore to a Victorian setting, then shot it employing the techniques of a 1970s social-realist film and the passion of a contemporary response to Thatcherism. Thirty years later, director Sarah Harding made the modern resonances of The Changeling even more explicit in an updating, retitled Compulsion, to the Asian community of 21st-century London.

These, then, are plays for today, as relevant and as powerful – and sometimes as shocking – as they were in the world of James I. Setting actors huge challenges, these plays also continue to offer the potential for great performances, as is demonstrated in this season by such stars as Christopher Plummer, Eileen Atkins, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone. Bring on that vengeance.

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