IAN MCKELLAN’S KING LEAR
The Trevor Nunn/Ian McKellen King Lear (shown last week in the US) is coming out on DVD in the US on April 21 (current Amazon price $22.49). The work is currently available both on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK (the Amazon price for both is £12.98, minus the VAT refund if you are ordering from the US). I liked this production quite a bit, but Louise Kennedy (in the Boston Globe) states that it is merely “pretty decent”:
For better and worse, this isn't a film of the live performance, but an adaptation made especially for television. It’s better because codirectors Trevor Nunn (who helmed the stage version) and Chris Hunt can use the strengths of TV, such as closeups and intimately pitched conversational tones - ideal for the intrigues and family quarrels swirling around Shakespeare's aging king. But it’s worse because it robs us of the chance to see McKellen as a stage actor, rather than as the familiar filmic presence of, say, Lord of the Rings. More troublingly, it also transforms Lear from one of the world's great plays into a pretty decent TV movie. . . . That tradeoff, along with some fairly heavy cutting in key scenes and some odd choices in others - showing us the Fool’s hanging, for example, though Shakespeare has Lear mention it only late in the day - diminishes the power of this performance. Still, it’s better than not having McKellen's Lear at all.
AGE OF KINGS
The classic BBC Age of Kings series (15+ hours presenting the Richard II, Henry IV (parts 1 and 2), Henry V, Henry VI (parts 1, 2, and 3), Richard III is being released tomorrow on DVD in the US (Amazon price $34.99). J. Hoberman in the New York Times gives a review and a personal memory of watching the series as a child:
A 15-part chronicle that drew upon Richard II, the two-part Henry IV, Henry V, the seldom staged three-part Henry VI and Richard III, the project was conceived by Peter Dews, a 30-year-old stage director and former schoolmaster, who persuaded the BBC to embark upon its first extended Shakespeare series. Mr. Dews’s production would be additionally remarkable for being broadcast live, with a continuing cast of young, largely unknown players, including Sean Connery as the fiery Hotspur, Robert Hardy (known these days as Harry Potter’s minister of magic, Cornelius Fudge) as Prince Hal and Judi Dench in the role of his flirtatious future bride, Katherine of France.
Mr. Dews divided the cycle into 75-minute episodes, each with a dramatic title — The Hollow Crown, The Band of Brothers, Uneasy Lies the Head — and an opening fanfare composed by the master of the queen’s music, Arthur Bliss. Cuts were made, particularly in Henry VI, the actors’ delivery was rapid and prompted by a percussive score, even a bit rushed. The mise-en-scène was modest, if not frugal; the action was staged on an artfully cramped set that served variously as royal bedchamber, battlefield and Eastcheap tavern. There seems to have been only two cameras. Close-ups were common, and a number of scenes were shot as if through a window or against a grille.
In short, An Age of Kings was quintessential early television, immediate and intimate. (“Great men in small rooms,” was Mr. Dews’s motto.) The shows were broadcast live in Britain, beginning in the spring of 1959. If this was Shakespeare as soap opera, the British critics did not complain. On the contrary: reviews were supportive, praising both the acting and the direction. (“You are certain to have seen far, far less good at the Old Vic,” a reviewer for The Observer wrote.) The first BBC series imported to America, An Age of Kings would be telecast in the United States in a somewhat more cinematic form as a series of edited kinescopes, black-and-white 16-millimeter films shot off the original television monitor. . . .
Viewed today An Age of Kings bears little resemblance to public television as we know it. There’s nothing genteel about Mr. Dews’s production; there are no elegant drawing rooms or scenic locations. The series’s success may have made television safe for Masterpiece Theater, but its true successors are Mad Men and The Wire, serial dramas that strain the confines of the small screen with their large characters, compelling situations and narrative density, if not the power of Shakespearean English.
On the same day, there is a US DVD release of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (Amazon price $13.49) starring Ian McKellan, filmed from the 1969 Edinburgh Festival production. This production was notorious for including the first kiss between two men on British television. (This is not to be confused Derek Jarman’s affected 1991 film version.
JOHN BARTON’S PLAYING SHAKESPEARE
The DVD set of a legendary set of acting workshops is coming out on June 2 (Amazon price: $71.99). Previously, the sessions were available in video tape in very expensive editions (it did have a showing on educational television in the early 80’s). The workshops are lead by John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company and featuring actors such as Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and David Suchet. An edited transcript of the sessions was released as a book.
DAVID TENNANT’S HAMLET
The Telegraph is reporting that David Tennant’s aborted Hamlet will be coming out on DVD:
The 37-year-old Dr. Who actor and the entire cast of the RSC production are preparing to make a film version of the play in June to record for posterity his portrayal, which was described by some as the greatest Hamlet of his generation. Speaking at a lunch held at the Haymarket Hotel, Oliver Ford Davies, 69, who was nominated for his portrayal of Polonius, tells me: “We are intending to film it over two or three weeks in June. It won’t be a full feature film as there isn’t time but it will certainly be more than just the filming of the stage. It will be fantastic to work together again.”
(HT: Shakesepare Geek)