Like many young actors, when I started I had dreams of performing some of the great roles of Shakespeare. One of the first things I did as a new actor was prepare three separate monologues, one comedy (Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech from Romeo and Juliet), one history (the prologue from Henry V) and one high drama ("Now Is the Summer of our discontent…" from Richard lll) in the hopes that one day I would be asked to audition for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.
However, my liking for Shakespeare did not come about just because I was an actor. In some ways it was probably the spectacle of seeing his work (and other classics) performed at the Stratford Festival during the 1970s that pulled me to the stage in the first place. It was, I believe, the Golden Age of the Stradford Festival; in the days before successive conservative governments gutted arts funding in Canada and forced the Festival to turn to Gilbert and Sullivan musicals to pay the rent, and some of the best actors in the English speaking world could be seen performing on a regular basis.
Perhaps that early exposure explains why I never feared the language, or found myself at a loss when reading the text in school like so many of my contemporaries. In fact my problem with Shakespeare is knowing what the language should sound like, and being continually disappointed by the inability of most productions to find actors who at least give the impression they know what they are saying. There's nothing worse in my opinion than an actor taking a deep breath and plowing through a speech as if it were one long sentence without any punctuation. So when the opportunity presented itself to view a package of four Shakespeare plays from the Thames Shakespeare Collection through the Arts And Entertainment network (A&E) I jumped at the opportunity.
Thames Television of England during the 1970s was rivaled only by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for the quality of their productions, and had a reputation for mounting solid productions of Shakespeare's plays. The four plays in this set, Macbeth, King Lear, Twelfth Night, and Romeo And Juliet was an intriguing mixture as well. Aside from Hamlet, The Tempest, and perhaps Midsummer's Night Dream, these are four of the most well known of Shakespeare's plays, with Macbeth and King Lear being considered especially difficult to stage.
While I have seen some classic performances of Lear in the past (Laurence Olivier's BBC production a couple of years before his death is still the benchmark against which I will always measure others) I had never seen a Macbeth that did justice to the script. That this production featured Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, plus a supporting cast that included John Woodvine as Banquo and other members of England's Royal Shakespeare Company only served to whet my appetite, and did not disappoint.
Of the four performances included in this collection Macbeth is the only one to have international star power appearing on screen. In fact, unless you were a regular watcher of British television in the 1970s and 1980s I doubt if outside of that production any of the actors are familiar faces for audience members in North America.
But, as Ian McKellen says in his introductory notes on the special features part of the Macbeth disc, British actors have a history and tradition of 400 years of performing Shakespeare to draw upon. In every single production, each actor, no matter what size his or her role, is at home with the Shakespearean text as if it were his or her everyday language. They appear as casual in their conversation with each other as you or I talking with a friend and all the while maintain the poetic nature of the verse by paying strict attention to the meter.
An interesting point of comparison between the four productions is their staging. Both King Lear and Romeo and Juliet were staged specifically for television with the actors having rehearsed specifically to be performing for the camera. Twelfth Night and Macbeth on the other hand were both theatrical performances that were adapted for the small screen after successful stage runs. Listen and watch the actors in each of the former two as compared to the latter and you will notice a difference in style and tone when it comes to how they deliver their lines.
In Macbeth and Twelfth Night where the actors had prepared for the stage, and are primarily stage actors, you will notice a greater flamboyance in the way they speak the verse. Words are enunciated with greater care and there is a fullness to their speech and a colour to their performance that is lacking in the others. In both Lear and Romeo And Juliet the actors tend to "talk" their lines rather than "perform" them and are in general less theatrical, having rehearsed specifically for performances in front of the cameras.
There are times, especially in Macbeth, where many of the actors don't have the on camera experience of the other performances (it was shot in 1978 and neither McKellen or Dench had yet to embark on their film careers to any large degree) and it often gives the impression that they are overacting something horrible. They are simply too big for the camera to contain as they are still giving performances that are geared towards ensuring that the person in the last row of the theatre is able to get as much out of it as those in the front row.
Personally I preferred the two that had been transfered from the stage to the television over the two made for the small screen. Although I wasn't necessarily in agreement with all the choices Ian McKellen made in his portrayal of Macbeth, I found his and Judi Dench's performance as Lady Macbeth specifically, and the casts of Macbeth and Twelfth Night in general, more exciting and alive than the others.
While the casts of the other two performances gave wonderful readings of the text, showing complete mastery and comprehension of the language and the verse, they lack the theatricality of the stage versions. While this makes them ideal for the camera, which picks up the subtlest of movements and slightest nuances of speech, I personally find that it takes a good deal of the life out of the text. This was language that was written for declaiming from a stage, to be larger than life, so when it is performed as realistic dialogue appropriate for the small screen I find it loses what made it special in the first place.
Of the four performances in the set, only Twelfth Night wasn't filmed in the 1970s, and the two made for television productions show their age somewhat more than the others. In particular the sets are more obviously stage pieces than the realistic backgrounds today's audiences are used to. The production of Macbeth is spared this because they recreated the minimalist stage settings of the original production and perform it in a virtually bare studio, using only occasional pieces of furniture to define the setting.
In Romeo And Juliet and King Lear the obvious artificiality of the sets creates a theatrical backdrop for the performances that is somewhat at odds with the more naturalistic presentation of the text. While it doesn't detract from the quality of individual performances, they were disconcerting enough that I was distracted from the on screen action each time the set changed.
The production of Twelfth Night avoided the pitfall of dating itself by using deliberately theatrical settings. By not trying for realism, and staging most of the action using the same set, they found the ideal compromise between stage and screen. Of the four productions it is the most obviously filmed theatrical performance, as the cameras seem to be accommodating the original staging instead of the performances being adapted to the screen.
In some ways this means that this Twelfth Night is the closest to actually attending a Shakespearean production in the theatre. While not as spectacular as the Macbeth is in places, it is probably the most consistent of the four productions. The performances manage to retain the theatrical nature of the text, while at the same time playing for the cameras instead of for the last row of the theatre. Of course it doesn't hurt that Twelfth Night is one of the most approachable of Shakespeare's comedies, but that shouldn't detract or diminish the quality of this performance.
In the end, despite some disconcerting elements, these are four wonderful examples of what it's like to see Shakespeare performed when none of the actors are intimidated by the text, and everyone from the leads to the smallest walk-on has a firm grasp of how to "speak the speech". Outside of the recent production of Merchant Of Venice featuring Al Pacino in the role of Shylock, these have to be four of the best filmed productions of Shakespeare I've seen.
If you're looking for the means to introduce someone to the joys of the Bard of Avon, or simply would like to enjoy the pleasure of seeing his work properly acted for a change, this is a great package. You can pick up a copy of the Thames Shakespeare Collection at the A&E web site. You won't regret it.