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Operation Shakespeare

The Guardian, May 4th 1989, Jay Rayner

The filming for TV of Michael Bogdanov’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ cycle called for a military style campaign.

Two years ago, when the English Shakespeare Company’s gargantuan 23-hour ‘Wars of the Roses’ cycle emerged from rehearsal for its world tour, director Michael Bogdanov said very firmly that he would never again attempt anything like it.

He and the company had restaged ‘Henry IV parts I and II’ and ‘Henry V’, which they had already been touring for a year, and then, without a pause for breath, had added ‘Richard II’, their own version of the three parts of ‘Henry VI’ in two sections, and ‘Richard III’ – and it had taken only 13 weeks, less than two weeks a play.

But in the first week of April, Bogdanov and the ESC journeyed to Swansea with their four massive trucks of set, costumes and props in tow to restage the whole cycle once again, this time in a week.

It was television that made him do it. After a celebrated two years and having visited Japan, Australia, America and Hong Kong along the way, the tour was heading towards a rather anti-climatic end on a wet Saturday afternoon at Swansea Grand Theatre. Then a gaggle of TV producers stepped in and suggested they film the whole cycle.

Swansea was the perfect location for the project. Away from the noise and passing fire engines of London it utilised a theatre which has only recently undergone a multi-million pound renovation and is now wired to cope with television like HTV who regularly use it.

Appropriately, like the plays, it was a massive and hair-raising operation. The full £1.1 million backing only became available at the last minute and, with the 28-strong company now committed to other projects, the tour could not continue beyond Swansea. Twenty-three hours of TV would have to be shot in only a week.

In short it meant taping each play live as it appeared on the stage with an audience, but with Bogdanov toning down the productions for TV cameras. There would be time to shoot only 10-15 minutes of close-ups each afternoon, mostly of fight and battle sequences, which would then be edited in to the live recording. Only Bogdanov could direct it for the small screen.

On the Friday afternoon, Bogdanov is standing on stage facing out into the darkness of the empty auditorium with his back to the action and leering at a TV monitor like a boxer sizing up his opponent. They are shooting close-ups of ‘Henry IV: House of Lancaster’ and the grisly scene in which Suffolk, played by ESC co-director Michael Pennington, has his head unceremoniously removed.

“Great. That was lovely,” Bogdanov says ironically. “Let’s tape it.” There is an air of controlled mania around the theatre with the firm knowledge that there is little or no time to go back and correct mistakes. What they see is what the TV audience will get, and there’s a lot of money resting on it.

To ease the operation the producers approached some of the country’s top technicians and got the services of most of them. BAFTA award-winning lighting director John Treays cancelled his holiday for it, and newly wed sound designer Bob Doyle opted to have his honeymoon in Swansea.

The senior technicians all saw the plays over a week in Southampton where they took notes and discussed the TV production with Bogdanov. It meant, however, that they had only seen each play once when they come to shoot it – and that the rest of the crew hadn’t seen them at all.

Instead, to catch every shot, seven cameras were put into the theatre including two hand held on the stage. Each morning Bogdanov showed the crew a simple video of that night’s performance made on one camera at Southampton, pointing out which actor was playing what. The 28 people in the company played more than 500 parts.

The sound came from loose gun mikes rather than radio mikes that proved impractical for this sort of production, and the whole operation was controlled from a mobile TV gallery truck out in the car park. Here Bogdanov sat during each performance making a frantic master edit.

There was a second gallery built on stage flats in the scenery dock where the producers hid chewing their hands through each performance, watching it on a dozen screens. “It was always a bit of a gamble,” says producer Andy Ward over lunch. “But it’s a revelation how this Shakespeare makes such good TV.” He, along with Jean-Paul Chapple, represented Portman Classics on location, the company created by Portman Productions just for ‘The Wars of the Roses’.

“Backing was only discussed in mid-January,” Ward continued, “and I got involved just before Easter. We’ve had about two weeks to put the whole package together.” Not only was it shot using state-of-the-art technology. It was made possible by state-of-the-industry collaboration. There are no fewer than five independent TV companies involved, from backers to distributors and post-production companies – and they haven’t even sold it to anybody yet.

“But mention to any broadcaster that we’re shooting Shakespeare and their eyes light up,” says production executive Angus Fletcher of distributors ITEL. “They know we’re making quality television.”

All the producers, and there seemed to be at least six people claiming the title, are aware of the problems created by trying to make quality television from quality theatre.

“The plays are obviously directed for theatre,” said Ward. “What we’re doing is trying to make it more three dimensional for television. We’ve relit it for the small screen and we’re using very low camera angles. You will be able to see into the wings because we are making no pretence that this isn’t on stage. It was a conscious effort to get the live element of the work on tape. The nearest comparison is to the filming of a rock gig.”

And, said Jean-Paul Chapple, the viewers will share the experience of the theatre audience rather than get involved in a voyeuristic exercise when it reaches television.

Another problem was the state of the ESC’s props and set. After touring for two years on limited funds, much of it was on its last legs by the time it reached Swansea. John Halle was brought in as TV Production Design Coordinator, with the mammoth brief of returning it all to first-night standard. As Angus Fletcher said, “Working on this ridiculous time-scale there’s only one thing to say in the face of calamity: It’s not a problem because there’s nothing we can do about it.”

But it was out in the cramped mobile TV gallery, during the filming of the second half of ‘Henry VI: House of Lancaster’, that the contradictions of such an exercise became most apparent.

Bogdanov sits faced by a bank of screens displaying the picture from each of the seven cameras. Every few seconds he flicks his fingers at each image as he wants it, shouting at the same time, a veritable whirlwind of energy.

On his left sits the vision mixer who will cut from camera to camera on his fraught command. On his right sits Anthea, the production assistant who gives a constant running commentary on the play from her prompt script for the crew.

As the lights come up on the last scene of the play Bogdanov looks distraught. “It’s too bright, it looks terrible,” he shouts. “We’ll have to shoot it again.”

“I’m sorry Michael,” comes the lighting designer’s voice on the radio. “It’s the first time we’ve seen this. It’s the best we can do.” Bogdanov settles down in his chair none too happy. But as June Watson, playing the bereft Margaret Queen of France, starts to walk across the stage, the severed head of her beloved Suffolk in her arms, the cameras reveal what the audience may not be able to see so acutely.

Tears are streaming down her face. It is a performance of huge emotional intensity and it is coming at him from so many angles on so many screens that Bogdanov is left in do doubt. “There’s absolutely no way I can ask her to try and do that again. Christ, I could never ask her to do that again.” A compromise has been reached. In a play-off between production values and performance it was the latter that got all the bouquets.

And that should be a relief for all those who have so adored this monumental ‘Wars of the Roses’ cycle. Agreed by many to be at its best when viewed in its entirety, it would be a tragedy if, in trying to bring in a larger audience, it lost the fire and nerve that has made so many people love it.

“You can’t apologise for it being a stage performance,” explains Bogdanov in a quiet moment.” But you can hope to capture some of the freshness and energy of them. These productions have a contemporary feel about them and they are for an audience brought up on soap operas. This is a story over seven plays of feuding families and people carving each other up.”

And Bogdanov goes as far as to say that the camera has enhances his productions. Originally staged, as most theatre is, for the person viewing from just one position, TV allows the viewer to move around the stage and capture more than was originally envisaged. “I’m very excited at what I’m looking at on the TV screens. When you look at the stage you see the whole thing, but now I’m seeing the details as well.

“Maybe we’ve actually focused and concentrated this production. The problem with televised Shakespeare now, however, is that the BBC series completely flooded the market and they were dull productions. Now we’re seeing a much punchier approach to Shakespeare, which is great.”

‘The Wars of the Roses’ now goes into post-production until October when it will be released to TV audiences. Meanwhile the ESC is taking a rest. Michael Bogdanov goes to Hamburg’s Deutsches Schauspielhaus in August and Michael Pennington will be filming a TV adaptation of John Mortimer’s ‘Summer Lease’ with new ESC productions planned for the spring of 1990.

But those in Swansea in the first week of April still had their minds full of the project in hand. Out in the bar sat an English Shakespeare Company groupie, a Bardophile who had followed the tour from one end of the country to the other and now wore an ‘I Survived the War of the Roses’ T-shirt.

Backstage in the dressing rooms and scenery docks, behind cameras and in control rooms were more than a hundred cast and crew who now understood what that T-shirt meant.

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