The Shakespeare Collection
This above-average collection brings together four Shakespeare adaptations recorded in the studio by Thames TV during the 1970s and 80s. Of the four, three are of very high quality and the fourth, King Lear, less so. They have all been previously available singly but are now brought together in this set.
A Performance of Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1978, 2h 26m)
This production began life on the stage in 1976, directed by Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a small studio theatre. It achieved instant acclaim and, at the time, was considered hugely revisionist for the way in which it stripped away all the pomp, the battles and the power politics to concentrate, in a very bare staging, on the dynamic between the characters. It featured Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as his Lady with an incredible supporting cast drawn from the ranks of the company including Bob Peck, Ian McDiarmid, Suzanne Bertish, Roger Rees, John Woodvine etc. The original theatrical staging was adapted for TV by Nunn and directed by Philip Casson. The costuming is plain and monochromatic and the stage is bare which concentrates the attention on the actors and the text. Although there are some stylistic flourishes for the TV audience (an overhead opening shot, for example) most of the action is filmed in simple two-shots or close-ups against a bare dark background. While this may be an effective adaptation of the original staging, it does amplify some of the more theatrical moments which would have been better toned down for the cameras. McKellen and Dench are incapable of giving bad performances and the supporting cast is of the highest quality. However the choice to shoot everything with a static camera in tight close-ups or group shots against a plain black background makes the piece bitty and lacking dynamic flow between scenes. Some scenes are also shot with heavy diffusion on the camera lens giving a fuzzy image which just doesn't work well on modern tellies. Coupled with the monochromatic design and black backgrounds this causes some problems for digital transfer and there is occasional 'floating' of heads in the close-ups and shimmering in general. Fortunately the transfer rate is adequate but this production is really meant to be watched on an old CRT set.
King Lear (1974, 2h)
Made specifically for TV, this naturalistic production features the Ulster actor Patrick Magee in the title role supported by a substantial cast of TV actors of the time including Patrick Mower, Ray Smith and Peter Jeffrey. Magee was a highly respected actor and worked for many of the biggest directors of the time including Stanley Kubrick and Peter Brook. He was a favourite of the playwright Samuel Beckett who even wrote works specially for him. He had already played Cornwall opposite Paul Scofield in Peter Brook's adaptation of Lear in 1971. The text here is heavily cut to give a two-hour running time which is probably a mercy. Magee had a highly individual style and although he looks every inch the part his performance style was very mannered and his vocal delivery is, at times, bizarre. He essays a very old-school theatrical performance which is quite at odds with the intimacy of the naturalistic studio setting. Unfortunately his supporting cast are only moderately talented and the whole thing has the air of an old-fashioned seaside rep company with everyone just reciting lines at each other in a 'Shakespearian' style. There are better adaptations out there.
Twelfth Night (1988, 2h 35m)
Adapted from Kenneth Branagh's stage production for his Renaissance Theatre Company this is played out in a stylised studio set. The period is late-1800s and Branagh (and TV director Paul Kafno) have opted to play the text uncut with the comedy downplayed in favour of the emotional and melancholic aspects of the story. One of the problems with adapting Shakespeare comedies for TV is the lack of a live audience. They were written to be performed in front an enthusiastic audience and can often fall flat without a response for the actors to work with and so it is here. Fortunately there is a saving grace in the form of a young Frances Barber as Viola. She has a rare aptitude for Shakespearean dialogue and breathes life into every line from the minute she opens her mouth in the opening scene. She has a fantastic rapport with the camera and with the other actors including Anton Lesser as Feste and Abigail McKern as Maria. It's such a pity that she is mainly known now for playing middle-aged man-eaters because she displays an extraordinary talent here. The only other cast member who can approach her natural talents for verse-speaking is James Simmons as Andrew Aguecheek, another stand-out performance. If memory serves, the casting of Richard Briers as Malvolio was quite controversial at the time. He was known then as a sitcom actor and he acquits himself well here but I can't help thinking he would have been much better with an audience response to bolster his little tricks and bits of business. The action is played out principally on a single studio set but the director doesn't really exploit the possibilities of the medium and goes for a fourth wall approach with the cameras rarely leaving the same spot and observing the action as if it were a stage performance. The set design contributes to this by looking like it has been transplanted from a proscenium stage directly into the TV studio.
Romeo and Juliet (1976, 3h 7m)
If memory serves this was a big deal when first transmitted in 1976. By the standards of the time this is a sumptuous adaptation with a cracking cast. Performed uncut and coming in at just over 3 hours without ad breaks this is a feast for the eyes and the ears. Performed in a faithful-to-period studio setting the design and high-quality costuming look like a renaissance fresco come to life. The younger cast members including Simon MacCorkindale and David Robb throw themselves into this with gusto and talent. The swordfight between Mercutio and Tybalt is unusually dynamic and violent for a television production. Speaking of Mercutio, the late Robin Nedwell is a revelation here. Known at the time as the star of the Doctor... sitcoms he brings to this a commitment and talent completely at odds with the featherlight comedies he is best known for. His Mab speech is superbly done. Of the older cast Patsy Byrne, a well-known character face of the time, is a standout as the Nurse, perhaps up there with Pat Heywood in Zeffirelli's 1968 film. Any adaptation usually stands or falls on the casting of the star-cross'd lovers. Christopher Neame was very well-known at that time having been a popular cast member of the BBC series Colditz between 1972 and 1974. A very intense performer, he had a striking, almost beautiful face and brings the requisite passion to the character, if not quite passing for a teenager. For fans of TV trivia, he had also caused a huge stir in 1973 when he became the first male actor to officially bare all on British television in A Point in Time. I remember the tabloids getting in a right old froth about it. Juliet on the other hand, played by newcomer Ann Hasson who acquits herself extremely well, looks more like the right age and the two work very well together. Although this adaptation is lacking top-of-the-marquee names it is solidly made, very well cast, played with passion and holds up extremely well against other, better-known, adaptations.
Each play has a single disc to itself and each is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The master tapes for each play are in pristine condition and the image quality is commensurate with the age of the materials. Twelfth Night, though, appears to have been filmed with some slight diffusion on the image as was becoming more common as the 80s progressed and a film aesthetic was taking over. Macbeth is also shot with diffusion on the image, which is very heavy in some shots. All four discs lack subtitles or extras of any kind. The soundtrack for each play is undamaged and the verse-speaking is, for the most part, clear and articulate so there are no problems hearing anyone. However the sound on each disc has been transferred at a fairly low level and needs to be played at a high volume setting.