Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.



Around the Globe, Spring 2006


The BBC Shakespeare began as one of the Corporation’s most promising enterprises of the late 1970s, but the results were uneven. Last autumn, some 20 years after the final production was broadcast, the complete cycle was released on DVD. Tony Howard looks into a mixed bag.


In 1978, with a flourish of trumpets scored by William Walton, the BBC announced its undertaking to broadcast every Shakespeare play in the First Folio. Cedric Messina, the project’s initiator and first producer, promised great actors in ‘traditional’ productions uncompromised by tricksy direction. The newish medium of video was central to his conception. Banning modern dress, Messina aimed to provide a library of supposedly definitive versions – “to make the plays, in permanent form, accessible to audiences throughout the world.”


But the BBC’s attempt to explore the new video market stumbled. Schools and colleges were expected to buy the entire series, which very few could afford to do. Only a handful of ‘popular’ plays ever reached the shops, and very few were ever re-broadcast. Over the years the BBC Shakespeare turned into a slightly embarrassing memory. Now its long-delayed commercial appearance (on DVD) permit a revaluation. It’s time to ask: how do these productions hold up?


The short answer is that they constitute a very mixed bag, containing several brilliant versions of less familiar plays beside some that seemed unwatchable at the time and remain so. Messina established two styles: pseudo-historical studio creation of Italy, medieval England and Rome on the one hand; ‘outside broadcasts’ filmed on location on the other.


As Kevin Billington’s fine ‘Henry VIII’ shows, the second has real potential. The documentary approach served the language well as the cast moved between claustrophobic corridors and Tudor palaces whispering secrets or projecting rhetorical defiance. John Stride’s fine Henry seems to burst with youthful self-confidence, but the camera also catches a hint of guilt in his eyes. Sadly though, these early experiments were killed in an inept ‘As You Like It’, shot in glum woods around Glamis Castle.


Messina, who was passionate about television’s potential, defended his territory against outsiders, engaging small-screen professional with no experience of Shakespeare. The Canadian director and producer Alvin Rakoff was assigned ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and, undeterred by a superficial acquaintance with the text (“I could read it and understand it without too much help”), tried to outdo Zeffirelli’s spectacular film in an overlit studio on a tiny budget. Alan Rickman, who played Tybalt, may still have nightmares about being chased down plywood colonnades while a few extras yell “Come on Tybalt!” or his balletic death-scene, sabotaged by see-through nylon tights. The BBC spotted Rickman’s talent, but much early casting was eccentric, giving several main roles to well-bred young men with glacial personalities and bad wigs. Sensing a debacle, the Beeb replaced the populist Messina with Jonathan Miller in 1980 (who in turn was succeeded by Shaun Sutton in 1982).


Miller boldly rethought the project, investigating the aesthetics of ‘the electric square’. He relocated Shakespeare in worlds taken from 16th and 17th-century paintings – Vermeer, Veronese, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and others – and his productions are beautifully composed. Close-ups and two-shots predominate; dialogue is conversational and crystal-clear, false emotion anathema. In Miller’s rational, engrossing productions, we eavesdrop on murmured politics and love, and though his style is uniform it’s subtly varied. For ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ he crams the small screen with epic characters who burst against its limits; in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ he shows just fragments of the story, allowing a glimpse of single faces as armies march by in heat-haze or darkness before they are lost to death. Miller and his new team turned the BBC’s folly into a lasting experiment in translation.


But Miller’s historicism also had its controversial side: he insisted that modern feminism was irrelevant to ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, which he said was a hymn to Protestant marriage, and he produced one of the last major ‘Othellos’ with a white actor in the title role. His justification was that the play is about alienation and envy, not race. Some actors benefited more from Miller’s muted approach than others. While John Cleese’s Petruchio blew it apart and Bob Hoskins’ Iago commandeered the camera, the passion of Anthony Hopkins’ Othello seems stranded. And Miller’s avoidance of obvious emotion can be wilful – the last shot of ‘Othello’ shows not the dead lovers but Cassio limping down a corridor.


Seen today, the cycle’s overriding fault is dramatic lethargy. Because the focus is on realism and there’s no audience to woo, speech tends to become introverted, pauses accumulate, images lack fire. There’s one exception, however. Elijah Moshinsky was allowed to be the series’ maverick, breaking its rules to create intense, filmic productions driven by fluid translations and emotional conflict. Moshinsky cut radically to create excitement and inner rhythm, insisting that “plays don’t speak for themselves – they need translation.” In ‘Coriolanus’ he cut back the mob to focus on Oedipal and homoerotic psychological battles: Alan Howard, Irene Worth and Mike Gwillim are magnificent here. So too are Helen Mirren, Michael Pennington and Robert Lindsay in his dreamlike ‘Cymbeline’. Moshinsky dissolves distinctions between reality and fantasy and puts us in contact with Shakespeare’s teeming, obsessional imagination.


For the record, the best productions include Billington’s ‘Henry VIII’, Miller’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Timon of Athens’; Moshinsky’s ‘Cymbeline’, ‘Pericles’ ‘Coriolanus’, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; David Jones’ ‘Pericles’; Jane Howell’s stylized reading of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and bravura ‘Henry VI’ trilogy, which begins in an adventure playground and ends with horror. Absolutely to be avoided are ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘Julius Caesar’. The middle ground includes countless fine performances – Derek Jacobi’s flamboyant Richard II, Warren Mitchell’s brave stab at Shylock, Claire Bloom’s collection of dignifies queens – and even a funny version of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’.


Classical drama is almost extinct on television now. The BBC has shown some National Theatre and Globe productions; it has put some money into films and, with the recent ‘Shakespeare Retold’ series, it has offered a few modern versions of the stories. But it has originated only three full-scale Shakespeares in the last 20 years. It’s time to celebrate what is best about the cycle.


The DVD’s include no extras, but there are subtitles. Switch these on and even the weakest production can be useful as readings – educational aids that prioritise text and give Shakespeare’s language opulent, if fallible, flesh.






Shakespeare on Film, Volume VII, Henry E Jacobs, The University of Alabama.


Cymbeline’ is a very difficult play to produce in any medium for several reasons. A surfeit of names, characters, places, and plots creates an unusually tricky situation for the director. Although some of the play’s problems proved to be as problematic on television as they can be on the stage, Elijah Moshinsky breaks new ground with his videotape of the play.


Moshinsky was less than successful with his solution to the problem of place and culture. The choice of a generalized eighteenth-century milieu as the “ground” for the BBC tape blurred the essential distinctions between the worlds of the play: prehistoric Britain and Wales, Augustan Rome, and Renaissance Italy. He more clearly established and sustained the distinction between urban settings and the hard pastoral world of Wales with the contrasting blacks and whites for Wale’s stark winterscape.


The confusing fragmentation of the plot was handled with judicious cutting and extremely rapid pacing. For the most part, Moshinsky showed a great deal of care for Shakespeare’s text, cutting so as to maintain the flow and focus of ‘Cymbeline’ without damaging the fabric of the play.


There was, however, one glaring exception to this careful treatment of the text. The tape cut (whether by Moshinsky or by PBS editors) the fight between Posthumus and Iachimo and Iachimo’s subsequent paroxysm of contrition (5.2s.d. + 1-10).  This “unkindest cut” resulted in two serious problems later in the catastrophe. When Posthumus says to Iachimo, “I had you down, and might have Made you finish,” we have no idea what he is talking about. More seriously, the omission of the fight and Iachimo’s contrition leave his apparent change of heart at the close of the play unclear and unmotivated.


The great strength of this production may be found in Moshinsky’s treatment of the characters and the superb performances that he elicited from most of the actors. Richard Johnson’s Cymbeline was a man whose judgement and moods were controlled by his own changeability and his wife’s manipulations rather than by age or sickness. Indeed, this Cymbeline never does change very much; he is as mercurial in the catastrophe as he was at the play’s opening.


Michael Pennington’s Posthumus similarly avoided excesses while Paul Jesson’s Cloten was an interesting if eccentric mixture of fop, oaf, braggart.


Robert Lindsay’s Iachimo and Helen Mirren’s Imogen were masterpieces. With Iachimo, Moshinsky again avoided the contemporary and popular conception of a bored dilettante or a cavalier sportsman. Instead, Lindsay’s Iachimo is the living embodiment of decadent sexuality and lascivious voyeurism. For this character, Posthumus’ initial faith in Imogen and the actual striking of the wager are erotically stimulating. Similarly, Iachimo’s long temptation scene with Imogen (1.7) conveyed subtextual lust in tone and movement.


This eroticism achieves a crescendo in the bedchamber scene. Moshinsky opens the scene up to all the textual and subtextual implications of rape through a combination of costuming, subtle lighting, and inspired blocking. Iachimo, shirtless, the camera focused on his upper body, leaned halfway on the bed.


Helen Mirren’s Imogen was an intelligent compromise between the paragon of virtue idealized by nineteenth-century romantic critics and the exemplum of disobedient daughter advocated by strict historicists. Mirren’s portrayal and Moshinsky’s direction illustrated the degree to which Imogen is a powerless pawn who is controlled by her husband, her father, her step-brother, her enemy, and even her servant. The resultant Imogen was predominantly a reactive rather than an active character. This, I think, is very much in keeping with the spirit and structure of the play.


Any television production of Shakespeare’s play is subject to the thousand natural excesses that seem to come with the medium and have been rehashed in these reviews time after time. Perhaps the most noticeable is Moshinsky’s willingness to use a tight shot on talking heads. This is not to suggest that such close-up shots were not used to striking advantage in some parts of the production.


Still another excess characteristic of Moshinsky’s production was the creation of striking visual tableaux vivants in the Flemish style, a type of shot probably the legacy of Jonathan Miller. The alternation of talking heads and tableaux vivants makes for a static production.


At the same time a nice touch was the grounding of the wager scene in a chess game which Posthumus proceeded to lose as he was drawn deeper into the wager.


It would be unfair to Moshinsky and the production not to end on a strongly positive note. For all its flaws, this production manages to make a rarely produced and very difficult play work very well indeed. The denouement was a theatrical tour de force that succeeded in manipulating our emotions backwards and forwards between the joy and anguish of the characters. In the true spirit of the tragicomic mode, we leave this production with a mixture of smiles and tears.




Shakespeare Quarterly, Number 34


Elijah Moshinsky made another interesting contribution to the BBC Television Shakespeare series with his production of ‘Cymbeline’. He gave the play a Jacobean setting, which had two immediate advantages. First, Jacobean clothes and rooms work well on television: they have a “lived-in” quality and do not draw undue attention to themselves. Here, together with the frequent use of close-up, they encouraged the viewer to concentrate on what the characters were saying, thinking, and feeling. Second, the somberly beautiful Jacobean interiors emphasized the predominantly somber interpretation of the play.


Both the somberness and the stress on character paid off in the two scenes between Iachimo and Posthumus. Posthumus was seriously, straightforwardly presented as a true lover rather than a braggart, falling victim to a lip-curling Italianate villain. His subsequent soliloquy was given a quasi-tragic intensity, the camera close in upon his face. Michael Pennington played it with great force, but he and the director missed what G.K. Hunter calls the “overwrought heroic folly” that is an element of the part. Robert Lindsay handled Iachimo’s attempted seduction of Imogen with a relaxed skill that made the notorious difficulties of the text seem non-existent. Later, he emerged naked from the trunk, a sinister “tempter of the night.” This certainly established the “potent sexual force” the director was aiming at, but the effect would surely have been the greater still had Imogen been naked too, as the text implies: how else does Iachimo see the mole under her breast (II.iv.134)? Up to the end of the second act, Mr Moshinsky had created a world in which the characters seemed absolutely credible, even the Queen: Claire Bloom was no melodramatic villainess, but a striking Medici Queen Mother, maintaining her smilingly aristocratic manner even when planning to poison Imogen.


In the middle of the play, the events become more fantastic, less easy to accommodate within a realistic Jacobean setting; but Mr Moshinsky made the complexities quite unnecessarily chaotic by reordering scenes and even sections of scenes. The opening part of Cloten’s soliloquy in IV.i (“How fit his garments serve me!”) was tacked on to the end of the scene in which Cloten asks Pisanio for Posthumus’ garments, so that a baroque fantasy involving Cloten admiring himself in a series of looking-glasses could be played out to a tinkling harpsichord accompaniment. Imogen’s awakening by Cloten’s corpse was separated from her subsequent meeting with Caius Lucius by the insertion both of Cymbeline’s worries about the Queen’s illness and the first half of Posthumus’ soliloquy on his return. The decision to split this soliloquy was the odder since otherwise, the battle being represented only by a blazing building, Posthumus held the screen uninterrupted right through to his vision of Jupiter.


It seemed as if this was being prepared for when the Welsh scenes were prefaced by an eagle in flight, and when the Cloten/Guiderius fight was accompanied by a battle between two eagles in the sky above their heads, but in fact Jupiter appeared without his eagle. Posthumus’ family merely gathered round the chair in which he slept, while Jupiter stood looking down on them in the foreground of the shot, urbanely spoken by Michael Hordern. But if it was oddly unspectacular, the scene itself went well, and the language, once again, seemed to present no difficulties. Indeed Mr Moshinsky believes that Posthumus’ “Be what it is, / The action of my life is like it” is a key line: “Shakespeare is saying the confusion of the play is like life: it’s bizarre and emotionally penetrating and psychologically intense. And very lifelike.”


True, but the serious interpretation of Posthumus was pushed so far as to become grotesque. With his shaven head and peasant rags, his destitute figure suggested a conflation of the mad Lear and poor Tom. Here the bizarre eclipsed the lifelike; and since Helen Mirren was a somewhat subdued Imogen, in keeping with the overall interpretation, the most moving moment in the finale was the princes’ obvious reluctance to part from their foster-father Belarius. This certainly had been prepared for by the earlier Welsh scenes: Michael Gough gave a superbly rounded portrait of great tenderness as Belarius, and the princes were excellent, particularly in the mock-burial of Imogen, where “Fear no more” was sung, to magical effect, though clearly against the implications of the text. The passage containing those implications was one of the several drastic and regrettable cuts that not only diminished the play’s effectiveness but seemed quite unnecessary, since the scenes which were virtually uncut, notably those between Iachimo, Posthumus, and Imogen early on, had worked so well in television terms.





 Return to Cymbeline