Shakespeare for the MTV generation: continued

Sir Richard Eyre, formerly director of the National Theatre and, more recently, director of those execrable adaptations of the Henry IV plays on BBC (I am assuming that the second part, which I haven’t seen, was filmed in much the same way as the first, which, sadly, I have), gives a rather interesting interview in the Daily Telegraph. He speaks, quite rightly, of the importance of the BBC, Britain’s national broadcaster, taking Shakespeare seriously: 

But one thing I did bleat on about then, and have continued to say since, is how philistine the BBC had become as an organisation, and about how it wasn’t taking Shakespeare seriously. 

I certainly can’t argue with that. But before he gets to this, he treats us to an obligatory denigration of BBC’s past effort: 

Next door, he remembers, was an ageing producer who had been “put out to grass” with the brief to televise the complete works of Shakespeare. “The result was a catastrophe, because what he churned out were hidebound versions, filmed in studios, that were not well-acted or well-designed. It was a chance squandered, and worse, these dreadful films are what has been shown ever after in schools all around the world as evidence of the BBC’s commitment to Shakespeare.

 The “ageing producer” in question was Cedric Messina, who did, indeed, “churn out” very conservative productions. And many of them are exactly as Sir Richard describes them. But certainly not all. 

As I had said in a previous post on the BBC Shakespeare series, many of the productions were mediocre and uninspiring: sadly, the list of poor productions include some of the major highlights of the canon –  Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and a quite unwatchable Romeo and Juliet. But even in Messina’s time, a number of productions transcended the flatness of design, and the hidebound conservatism of the directorial approach: I remember in particular a tense and dramatic Measure for Measure, and a delightful Twelfth Night; and, rather interestingly, the very plays that Sir Richard has recently filmed so badly – the Henry IV plays. And, contrary to Sir Richard’s assertion, these plays were superbly acted, with Anthony Quayle an unforgettable Falstaff, and David Gwillim distinguishing himself as Prince Hal.

 I wonder whether Sir Richard deliberately forgot in his interview that the “ageing producer” who had been put out to grass was replaced after a while by Jonathan Miller; and that the quality of the series improved markedly after that. There were, admittedly, a few duds even then, but the best were certainly as fine as any production of Shakespeare as I’ve seen, and quite undeserving of Sir Richard’s derision. The BBC Othello – with Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins and Penelope Wilton – is a particular favourite of mine, but that remains a controversial interpretation (not least because it featured a white actor blacking up), so let us leave that to one side: but I certainly haven’t seen better productions of The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, All’s Well That Ends Well Even those problematic early plays such as The Taming of the Shrew or Titus Andronicus were done about as well as I can imagine. But the crown of the series, for me, was the tetralogy comprising the three Henry VI plays, and Richard III, magnificently directed by Jane Howell. I have never seen Shakespeare done better on screen. And, far from being hidebound and conservative, these productions were far more cutting edge than Sir Richard’s recent versions: Jane Howell set the whole thing in a bare studio, relishing the artificiality of these works; the only sets represented a children’s playground, and they became progressively shabby and battered as the plays progressed; Jane Howell also made imaginative use of doubling, with the same actors appearing in different roles throughout the series, and thus highlighting in unexpected ways the various dramatic shifts. All in all, it was a triumph of the director’s imagination. Now, let us compare his to Sir Richard’s recent adaptations, with the predictable medieval settings of castle chambers and cathedral cloisters. It seems pretty clear to me that it is Jane Howell’s productions that are imaginative and cutting edge, while Sir Richard’s productions remain in comparison merely dull and, to use his own derisive epithet, “hidebound”. 

And above all, these older productions respected the text. A rather important point, I would have thought, if one is to take “Shakespeare seriously”.

Of course, Sir Richard would no doubt claim that he, too, respects the text, but I can see little evidence of any respect in statements such as this: 

I saw [the allotted two hour timeslot] as a licence to remove the repetitions that work well in the theatre but not on TV.

Of course! – silly, boring old Shakespeare, not realising he was being repetitive! Good job we have a superior modern sensibility such as Sir Richard’s to put the old boy right on these matters! “These adaptations are not dumbing down,” he continues, “I see them as dumbing up.” Anyone have any idea what he’s on about?

Having read the interview with Sir Richard Eyre, I really am not surprised that his recent adaptations are so poor. Better than nothing, some may say? I respectfully disagree. It is better not to do Shakespeare at all than to misrepresent his works in this manner.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mercutio on July 17, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Observing Henry IV part 1 in its home setting of the stage certainly offers a full view of the playwright’s work, but I found the BBC production to also offer the same (or at least similar) atmosphere.
    Recalling your earlier comments upon the interpretation in the above mentioned BBC production of Othello (some time last year, while watching it), you said that the different, unusual interpretation of some lines changed the effect and meaning. Perhaps we should then treat the new BBC productions (The Hollow Crown) as yet more. As the atmosphere and ‘feel’ of the play is retained, I would say that this production has been successful.

    Reply

    • Hello Mercutio, and welcome,

      Looking though the widespread praise given to these recent broadcasts, I think I am in a minority in not caring for them. I am possibly in an even smaller minority in that I am actually quite angry about them – and I do appreciate that anger is not a good state of mind to be in, and also that an angry person is unlikely to articulate coherent arguments. But let me have a go, anyway!

      First of all, why did the BBC do an “adaptation”? If one is to put, say, a Jane Austen novel on television, one has to adapt, since a novel is intended to be read, not performed. But here, the original work is intended for performance. Yes, I agree, it was intended for performance on stage rather than on screen; but does this provide a “licence”, as Sir Richard claims, to restructure the stage play? To cut out vast chunks of it? To shorten or even to excise important speeches? To splice different scenes together? To alter Shakespeare’s pacing? Can the final result be described as a play by Shakespeare at all? Or would it be more accurate to describe it as “a fantasia based on a play by Shakespeare”?

      Would we be happy, say, to “adapt” Beethoven by taking a string quartet, breaking it up into fragments, throwing away some of these fragments and re-arrange the rest? The result may or may not be interesting, but I don’t know that we can describe what emerges as a “work by Beethoven”. And the question would inevitably surface: if you’ve got musicians capable of playing a Beethoven string quartet, why not just let them play it as written rather than “adapt” it?

      Sir Richard strongly implies that Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays are repetitive. I dispute that: which parts of the text does Sir Richard think are repetitive? I think I would be able to demonstrate that each passage excised is important, and that, as a consequence of the excisions, the work is diminished.

      Most Shakespeare plays can survive a bit of judicious cutting: but I really don’t think they can survive wholesale butchery. Sir Richard thinks that performing the whole text (or even a judiciously cut text) works on stage, but not on television, but I think he is demonstrably wrong in thinking so: the examples I have given in my post all perform (more or less) the whole text, and they work superbly well on television. It isn’t easy to make it work on television – I’ll grant that: but butchering the text in this manner seems to me to be evading rather than overcoming the challenge.

      I must also say I am more than a bit annoyed by Sir Richard’s derisive dismissal of a series which, at best, scaled far greater heights than his recent “adaptations” even aspired towards. Sir Richard attacks the BBC Shakespeare series from the70s/80s for being ultra-conservative, and hidebound: well, that series – once again, at its best – was actually quite radical and cutting edge: the Henry VI plays and Richard III of that series remain for me the finest Shakespeare I think I have seen on television, and, indeed, makes Sir Richard’s “adaptations” seem conservative and traditional. Sir Richard appears to have accepted unthinkingly every single feature of modern film-making – quick-cutting, handheld cameras, long scenes intercut with each other so that no single scene goes on for more than a few minutes at most, visual distractions when important things are being said, etc. etc. Slavish adherence to contemporary practice can produce results that are every bit as “hidebound” as slavish adherence to traditional practice.

      I agree with you that unexpected delivery of certain lines make for new and interesting interpretations. But if the lines are cut out, the actors don’t get a chance, do they? I greatly admire Simon Russell Beale as an actor, and was looking forward to seeing how he would interpret certain passages: sadly, he didn’t get a chance, as many of the passages I was particularly interested in were missing, and many others presented within dramatic contexts which – thanks to the cuts and the re-arranging – lacked the richness one may find the original “unadapted” plays.
      As I say, I think I am very much in a minority in these views. I was, however, very much looking forward to these adaptations – the first that the BBC has attempted of Shakespeare in many, many years – and feel deflated that the BBC didn’t trust Shakespeare’s works sufficiently to perform them “unadapted”.

      (I should add also that I base what I have written on their production of Henry IV Part One: I haven’t seen their Richard II, and I have heard good things about that.)

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Caro on July 19, 2012 at 7:21 am

    It seems to me, Himadri, that one of the problems is of knowing the original works too well. I can’t comment from experience not having really read any of the history plays beyond Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Richard III. And also knowing there is no way any NZ television channel (with the possible though unlikely exception of Maori television) would put on a series of Shakespeare.

    As far as I can gather, though, this series, including the Henry IV ones have been very much appreciated by people like me who enjoy Shakespeare but don’t know all the plays well. From a messageboard I belong to, where people certainly couldn’t be called the MTV generation, being my age, well educated, discriminating, often scathing of inaccuracies, and full of the sort of knowledge I would die for (or at least will die without), someone has talked of this in these terms:

    “Richard ll, Henry lV, pts 1 and 2 and next week Henry V and they have been superb. It’s been a particular pleasure since the Histories aren’t often performed up here and are rarely covered in school so I’m not at all familiar with them and these have been a revelation.
    I can’t recommend it highly enough.
    There’s been so much great stuff on in the Shakespeare season; I was enormously taken with the RSC production of Julius Caesar set in a contemporary African state. Not only did the plot sit so well there, the African speech rhythms made the language sound almost naturalistic. Brilliant acting as well.”

    These comments were on three different posts. I don’t think a film has to stick to the original, even if that is a play, and a play by someone as important as Shakespeare. I remember watching a very praised television series of the Anne of Green Gables books. It must have been very good, and I remember enjoying it to a degree, but I knew the books very well indeed, and things were missing or changed which bothered me a great deal. But I don’t think it was fair of me really, and I am not sure it is fair of you to expect all Shakespeare productions to stick to how he wrote them. (Wouldn’t bother me what they changed with Beethoven – I wouldn’t notice! It either sounds good or it doesn’t.)

    Cheers, Caro (being awkward as usual)

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, don’t worry about being awkward: the whole purpose of this board is to encourage discussion, and I certainly don’t expect people commenting on my posts merely to express agreement with me. (My good friend and sparring partner Alan, who frequently posts here, refers to uncritical agreement as “tummy-tickling”!)

      Sure, I agree, you can do whatever you like with Shakespeare’s plays. Famously, Kurasawa used Shakespeare’s plays as the basis of a number of films that are quite rightly regarded as cinematic masterpieces: but he did not pass them off as Shakespeare. Verdi, too, used Shakespeare’s plays as the basis of operatic masterpieces (see here): but once again, he did not pass off the product as Shakespeare – these were original works that took Shakespeare’s plays merely as a starting point. But that is not the case here. Despite the BBC’s unobtrusive disclaimer that these are “adaptations” (and I repeat the question I had posed earlier: why adapt when you have such wonderful material to start with that doesn’t require adaptation?) these are presented as “BBC does Shakespeare”; and, as the comments you quote indicate, these are widely perceived as “Shakespeare”:

      It’s been a particular pleasure since the Histories aren’t often performed up here and are rarely covered in school

      Not “adaptations of Histories”, but “Histories”. Shakespeare’s Histories. These are perceived as performances of Shakespeare’s Histories, not of new works that take these Histories as starting points.

      You say:

      Wouldn’t bother me what they changed with Beethoven – I wouldn’t notice! It either sounds good or it doesn’t.

      But surely you can appreciate that this would bother those who do know and love Beethoven: it would bother them that those who don’t know Beethoven would take this to be Beethoven’s work. And surely you can accept also that this hypothetical adaptation is highly unlikely to be of a stature comparable to the original. So why do it? Why adapt? Why mess around with so great a work when it would have been so much better if performed as written? What is gained by this? If you are served a beautifully cooked goumet meal, what is the point of chucking large parts of it away and smothering the rest in tomato ketchup?

      I do realise that these productions have received virtually unanimous praise, and this depresses me even more. Given the worldwide prestige of the BBC, these adaptations will be seen as representative of Shakespeare’s original plays. And they aren’t.

      (In response to my previous post on the subject, Alan Boshier has – in the nicest possible way! – reprimanded me for my use of the term “MTV generation”, but I stick by it: it conveys some of the anger and dismay I feel about this whole business.)

      Reply

  3. Posted by Caro on July 20, 2012 at 2:18 am

    “Why adapt? Why mess around with so great a work when it would have been so much better if performed as written?”

    Presumably the film-makers didn’t think it would have filmed as well if performed as written. I don’t think your objection that people will be misled about Shakespeare has great validity, Himadri. If they are greatly interested they will read the works for themselves – no one actually expects a film to be the same as the written word; it can’t really be. Or even the same as a stage production (films that stick to a stage production usually look rather, well, stagey and artificial and somehow, just not quite right). Even if they missed our half the play as written, I for one would still known a huge amount more of it that I do now, where all I have managed of Henry IV is skimming it, looking for quotes.

    Your real objection just seems to be with the name of the productions, since you accept that people over the years have adapted and will adapt Shakespeare. Just put into your head “adapted from Shakespeare”. I really don’t think you need to worry that us plebs will get the wrong idea of SS from these productions – far from it, by the sound of what people are saying. They are finding new enthusiasm and a realisation that these less-known plays would be well worth seeking out. And surely that is a good thing. I would just love to have the opportunity to see them, but we will have to wait for the DVDs. And then they will sit on the shelves and we won’t get round to watching them. You don’t know how lucky you are, having the BBC. Come here and see what goes for public television in my country, and you might find yourself a little less critical of the state of things in Britain.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Caro on July 20, 2012 at 2:20 am

    PS People put tomato sauce on gourmet meals because they like the taste better that way. I smile at that, but it doesn’t really offend me.

    Reply

    • Presumably the film-makers didn’t think it would have filmed as well if performed as written … no one actually expects a film to be the same as the written word; it can’t really be. Or even the same as a stage production (films that stick to a stage production usually look rather, well, stagey and artificial and somehow, just not quite right).

      All art is artificial. The words “art” and “artificial” have the same etymological roots. Shakespeare revelled in artifice: he got his characters to speak in blank verse or in heightened prose. It is one of the great paradoxes that art, through artifice, can lead us to a deeper apprehension of reality. Why be embarrassed about the artifice?

      When the “written word” is a playscript intended specifically for performance, why can’t we expect it to be performed more or less as it is? I have gone to some lengths in my post to give examples of Shakespeare’s plays successfully presented on the small screen with the integrity of the text respected: it is demonstrable that it can be done, and done successfully. It will only seem “somehow not right” if one believes that the modern conventions of film-making are inviolable. Why not challenge these conventions? Jane Howell did, in her BBC productions of the Henry VI plays, and Richard III. Trevor Nunn did, in his television versions of RSC productions of Macbeth and Othello. Kenneth Branagh did in his television version of his theatrical production of Twelfth Night. (I didn’t like his reversing the order of the first two scenes, but apart from that, it was about as fine a Shakespeare production as I’ve seen anywhere – on stage or on screen.) To put it crudely, the BBC and Sir Richard Eyre did not have the balls to challenge current fashions in film-making. And the result is conventional, safe, and a bit boring.

      Your real objection just seems to be with the name of the productions, since you accept that people over the years have adapted and will adapt Shakespeare.

      In the examples I gave (Kurasawa’s films, Verdi’s operas) the plays were taken as “starting points”: the rest was Kurasawa’s (or Verdi’s) own work. In other words, they created something of their own on a base taken from Shakespeare. That’s not what we have here, though, is it? Has Richard Eyre created something of his own? He has taken the original plays and has eviscerated them; he has taken something that is very rich, and robbed it of much of its richness; but what exactly has he added of his own in compensation?

      I really don’t think you need to worry that us plebs will get the wrong idea of SS from these productions – far from it, by the sound of what people are saying.

      My diatribes are directed against the film-makers, not the viewers: I don’t think of the public as “plebs”. But I suspect that those who made The Hollow Crown do. “Give the plebs a simplified version … they aren’t up to the challenge of the real thing, are they, poor dears? …” etc. I can’t think of any other reason for denuding works so rich of their richness.

      You don’t know how lucky you are, having the BBC. Come here and see what goes for public television in my country, and you might find yourself a little less critical of the state of things in Britain.

      That others are even worse doesn’t let the BBC off the hook in this instance. But I am not, as you seem to imply, indiscriminatingly critical of the BBC: their audio productions of Shakespeare, broadcast on Radio 3 and easily available on CDs or as downloads, are superb in every respect. I am very grateful for these – and for BBC’s other high quality radio broadcasts – and have said so often. If you would really like to experience the richness of these wonderful plays, I’d recommend you forget about the DVDs of this television series, and get yourself the BBC audio versions. I just wish that they would treat their television audiences with the same respect as they do their radio audiences. (Far from thinking of the viewing public as “plebs”, I am asking for the public to be paid a bit more respect)

      People put tomato sauce on gourmet meals because they like the taste better that way.

      But these ketchup-smothered gourmet meals were served to the entire public – myself, and people like myself, included. What about those of us who enjoy gourmet meals, and had been looking forward to this? What about those of us who may have enjoyed the gourmet meals had we been given the opportunity? Don’t we count? Presumably not. We never do.

      Reply

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