Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shakespeare Uncovered, An Appreciation

by Pa Rock
Culture Vulture

PBS is currently airing a six-part, six-hour special series on the life and works of William Shakespeare.  The series originally ran on BBC in Great Britain last summer.  As luck would have it (“luck” because I am not a subscriber to any television guides), I was fortunate to catch the first two episodes last Friday night on the Phoenix PBS affiliate.

The series is called Shakespeare Uncovered.

The first episode featured Ethan Hawke discussing and exploring one of the Bard’s darkest plays, Macbeth, the story of a king with blood on his hands – literally.    Young Mister Hawke talked about the tragic king as he (Hawke) walked the nighttime streets and alleyways of New York City.    He showed clips of older productions and visited the rehearsal of a contemporary, off-Broadway production of Macbeth which had an interesting feature of some nudity.  He also did a dramatic reading from a 400-year-old folio of the play.  

A lot of really good stuff was compressed into one brief hour, and the result was stunning.  Ethan Hawke walking through New York City at night in his street-tough clothes came across as a character who could have easily been penned by Shakespeare.

The second episode was hosted by actress Joely Richardson, the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and a contemporary representative of the legendary Redgrave acting family.  Ms. Richardson’s emphasis was on the comedies of Shakespeare, particularly Twelfth Night and As You Like It.   She, like Hawke, used clips from old performances to reinforce her commentary on the comedies, and she also interviewed her famous mother regarding the role of Rosalind which Ms. Redgrave played to much critical acclaim in the movie version of As You Like It

Two of the things that made the Richardson segment so enjoyable for me were her visits to a couple famous London landmarks, both of which I experienced a decade ago.   One was the renowned Old Vic Theatre in London’s theatrical West End.    A major highlight of my brief trip to London was having the opportunity to see a young actor named Ben Wishaw play Hamlet at the Old Vic.  (Wishaw and Patrick Stewart star in a new film version of Richard II for Great Performances which will be one of the productions featured next Friday evening when Shakespeare Uncovered looks at that play.)

The Old Vic is one of the more historic theatres of London.  When I attended the production of Hamlet in 2003, the American actor, Kevin Spacey, was the theatre’s artistic director, and Dame Judi Dench sat on its board of directors.  Ms. Richardson told the story of her mother’s birth being announced at the Old Vic.  On  January 30th, 1937, Sir Laurence Olivier was playing Hamlet at the famous theatre and Michael Redgrave was his co-star playing Laertes.   After the last curtain call, Olivier stepped out in front of the curtain and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born.  Laertes has a daughter!”  And indeed, a great actress had been born that evening.

The other British landmark that Joely Richardson and the BBC crew visited which had special meaning for me was the beautiful reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre which sits on the same location as the original along the Thames River.  My niece, Heidi Pfetcher, and I visited the Globe during the summer of 2003 where we saw a great production of Much Ado About Nothing starring Yolanda Vazquez.  We were in the “cheap” section where audience members stand in front of the stage.   In one scene from last week’s Shakespeare Uncovered, Ms. Richardson strolled across that same open area, at night with snow falling.    It was starkly beautiful, undoubtedly like many of the actual evenings when the Bard himself trod upon the same magical ground.

The four remaining episodes of Shakespeare Uncovered will be shown on PBS during the next two Friday nights in Arizona.  They include Derek Jacobi examining Richard II, Jeremy Irons taking a look at Henry IV and Henry V, Trevor Nunn on The Tempest, and David Tennant (my favorite Dr. Who and a very talented Shakespearean actor) discussing Hamlet. 

I will be sitting squarely in front of the television box for each and intend to enjoy them immensely!  Shakespeare Uncovered is superbly entertaining as well as exceedingly educational.  It's a grand and glorious twofer!

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