In the six-part television series Shakespeare Uncovered, Richard Eyre, the former head of the UK’s National Theatre, puts his finger on the pulse of the world’s greatest playwright: “…If you say, ‘What is Shakespearian?’ Everything that is Shakespearian is ambiguous.”
Yes, but that didn’t stop series producer Richard Denton from bringing actors, directors, academics and others together to explore the meanings, impact and modern relevance of the plays written (or not written, according to actor Derek Jacobi) by William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. And though no one could do justice to the Shakespearian canon in just six hours, the insights and information provided in this largely entertaining series will serve as a nice introduction for some viewers and a starting point for healthy debate among others.
Shakespeare Uncovered aired in the United Kingdom last year on the BBC; it comes to PBS stations this weekend (its primetime run in the Nashville area begins Saturday at 9 p.m. on WNPT with a second part at 10 p.m., though those who also get NPT2 through Comcast can start watching it today at 8 p.m. Non-night-owls can also tape it on their DVR or other devices starting at 1 a.m. Saturday on WNPT).
Theater and film practitioners host each episode – actors Ethan Hawke, Joely Richardson, Jacobi, Jeremy Irons and David Tennant as well as (among many prominent positions) former Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Trevor Nunn. For some, the focus is on a single play, such as Hawke’s search for the history, violence and madness that drive Macbeth in the first part; others go for a wider view, like Richardson’s focus on Shakespeare’s comedies – and the strong women in them – that comprises the second installment airing this weekend.
Next weekend Jacobi gives us a look at the politics and personalities in Richard II and Irons handles the rest of the daunting “Henriad” history saga: Henry IV Parts I and II as well as Henry V. Two weeks from now the series concludes as Tennant breezily mounts the Everest that is Hamlet while Nunn – who has helmed 30 of the 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare – concludes with a thoughtful treatise on magic, revenge and forgiveness in The Tempest.
Certainly fans of the actors involved – not just among the hosts but others like Richardson’s mother Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Jude Law – will enjoy the peeks behind the curtain through interviews, frequent visits to Shakespeare’s Globe in London for rehearsals and scene work as well as plenty of clips from film and TV versions of the plays. Watching Richardson as she delights in viewing her mother play Rosalind in a 1963 BBC presentation of As You Like It that made the young Redgrave a star in her native country, or Jacobi as he views his Richard II for a 1978 BBC adaptation before proclaiming he could do it better now, is quite engaging.
But those and other moments involving actors and their readiness-is-all processes – veteran actor Richard Easton aiding an enthusiastic-but-as-yet-Bard-untried Hawke with textual questions is a good example – aren’t all we get. Writers, historians and other academics from both sides of the pond offer their take on the works, including former Folger Shakespeare Library director Gail Kern Paster and Oxford University Professor of English Literature Jonathan Bate (who has written books on the Bard as well as the one-man show The Man from Stratford performed in the UK and the USA by Simon Callow). And parallels between the world of the plays and our modern world – images of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi in the Richard II episode are two instances – are regularly drawn.
So why do the plays still matter? A possible answer lies in the ways they convey the human condition so that anyone can connect with Shakespeare’s characters and stories in any era. As actor Antony Sher says in the first episode, “Shakespeare’s great gift as a writer is that he never holds people at arm’s length. He never says, ‘Look at this person, isn’t he disgraceful, isn’t he ridiculous.’ Shakespeare always says, ‘It’s me, it’s you, it’s us.’ He always does that. It is his great gift.”
Wisely Shakespeare Uncovered doesn’t go so far down the talking-heads road that it becomes a dry documentary better suited for insomnia relief than melatonin pills. Entertaining notes of down-to-earth irreverence prevent that, particularly when cheeky-chappy Tennant – anyone who’s ever watched him as the tenth incarnation of “Doctor Who” knows what I mean – takes us through the RSC gift shop’s collection of Hamlet-related trinkets (one of the worst is a black tin with “2B OR NOT 2B” on the top). Tennant played the Melancholy Dane in an acclaimed 2008 RSC production that was later adapted for the small screen, saying that “It was, and remained until the final performance, utterly terrifying.” He may well enjoy viewing the iconic play and its title role through a light-hearted lens now that the experience is in his rear-view mirror. (He’s about to play Richard II for the RSC, though, so he’s hardly taking it easy these days.)
There’s a nice dose of controversy too (and no, I’m not talking about Irons’ recent likening of Downton Abbey to a Ford Fiesta while promoting Shakespeare Uncovered). Jacobi has long been a vocal proponent of the notion that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, and he spends considerable time (likely too much for some) making his case for the Oxfordian authorship claim. On a non-controversial note the series also provides a look at some films we will hopefully see soon on Great Performances – the “Hollow Crown” TV movies produced by Sam Mendes that will bring us fresh versions of Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V (I’m looking forward to seeing how the great Simon Russell Beale made out as Falstaff).
No, this short series (Denton hopes to make more episodes to coincide with the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014) isn’t a definitive look at the works that have enthralled people around the world for more than 400 years, but how could it be, and why should it be? As writer Germaine Greer asserts about Stratford’s famous son, “…he’s not telling you how to think, he’s asking you to think.” Shakespeare Uncovered ultimately spurs us to explore the Bard’s works for ourselves.
*Photos by Alex Brenner and Tim Pollard courtesy WNET.