The recent import from the BBC 4, Shakespeare Uncovered, is a six-part series in which one well-known public face of the theatre each episode gives an in-depth, personal walk-through a selection from Shakespeare’s plays. Four examine a single play, the other two look at more than one, related by genre. The Beeb’s website has outlines and clips from each episode, but doesn’t offer the whole thing. The PBS version has lots of fun peripheral material.
To recap, the episodes were:
Joely Richardson on Twelfth Night and As You Like It
Ethan Hawke on Macbeth
Derek Jacobi on Richard II
Trevor Nunn on The Tempest
Jeremy Irons on the Henry IV and V plays
David Tennent on Hamlet
Only one woman, and the comedies (which have the larger female roles) given less individual attention, which is typical. Still worse, on the website the episode is listed as Richardson discussing “Shakespeare’s Women”, which is not what she did; she talked about Rosalind and Viola. I would rather have the episode listed by play like the others. I don’t like the sense that women are a separate group, that all female characters can be lumped in together, or that a female narrator is only qualified to talk about women, not plays. But seeing Joely Richardson talk to her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, about the latter’s phenomenally famous Rosalind – priceless!
Trevor Nunn was the only director to narrate an episode, although others made appearances for commentary. It made me curious about the process used in drawing up the plan for the episodes. Did the producers just ring around their chums until they could pin down six big enough names? Or did they start out with a strategy resembling, “Let’s see if we can get one director, one American and one woman”?
It was obviously going to be glorious to watch David Tennant sit down with Jude Law to discuss Hamlet, but the unexpected, very super-special bonus for me was seeing Tom Hiddleston give the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Joy!
They gave Derek Jacobi the space to trot out his belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but I thought the response they included from Jonathan Bate was exactly the right approach. He pointed out that the plays were written for a working theatrical company, with a very specific group of actors, and it is impossible to imagine that someone not involved right in the thick of it, in the day to day business of getting a play up, could have written something that worked for those people in those circumstances.
I enjoyed the additional opinions brought in very much, and think the producers did a great job of sourcing a range of voices. For example, I find Stephen Greenblatt too hyperbolic for my taste, but Bate balanced that nicely. It is quite an impressive thing to do, to create a series on Shakespeare that will be appealing for the novice or the casually interested, but that still provides thoughtful material for those who already know something of this field. So what did everyone else find for themselves in the series?
P.S. A special note to Trevor Nunn: when you think you’ve discovered the character who speaks with Shakespeare’s own voice, what you’ve actually done is found the character who most reminds you of yourself.