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.