“An Age of Kings”is a Lesson for Our Times


A-SH-Age of Kings

“An Age of Kings” is a Lesson for Our Times

Any one interested in Shakespeare especially, the English theatre more broadly, or simply how good television can be, must see the BBC Video DVD release of “Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings.” I have been waiting since 1960 for a video release of this 15-part series which set standards for televised Shakespeare that have seldom been met, even by the later BBC complete (so-called) color series that has been available on video tapes and DVDs for quite some time.

“An Age of Kings” tells the story—well, Shakespeare’s version of the story—of what happened in England from the moment Richard II unwisely banished his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, through the rebellions that followed, Henry V’s victory in France, the War of the Roses that marred Henry VI’s reign, and right up to the death of Richard III in 1485, when a family named Tudor took over the country and changed history.

Each episode runs between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes. Each of the plays are given 2 episodes each, with the exception of “Henry VI, Part I,” which is reduced to a single episode by omitting the main character, Lord Talbot! Surprisingly, his absence does not affect the main story in the least. No play is free of cuts, but the continuity is excellent even without the missing scenes.

The one thing most politically oriented viewers will notice—and Shakespeare is always very careful to emphasize this theme—is that while all of the characters speak of England’s good, what most of them really want is Power. Some of them, unlike the politicians of today, take some pains admitting it. (Pol-Sci majors, take note.) Others are good men, who truly love their country, but make fatal mistakes. The huge cast of characters, aside from the lower classes who are expected to lay down their lives for their leaders but have nothing to say about it, is divided into the Power-hungry  and the Patriot camps; and one cannot help notice how the latter usually are the first to suffer.

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Before James Bond, Sean Connery was Hotspur

A relatively small group of actors was willing to work for minimal pay to bring this project off, and many of them play numerous parts, as was done in Shakespeare’s Globe and in any repertory company down through the ages. So a crowd scene will show an actor named Terry Scully, who will later appear as Henry VI a few episodes later—and so on.

King Henry (Robert Hardy) woos Princess Catherine (Judi Dench)

There will be several familiar faces of British actors who were to become international stars later on. Robert Hardy is an excellent Prince Hal/Henry V, while Frank Pettingell is by far the best Falstaff I have seen. “Henry IV, Part I” has a remarkable Hotspur played by an obscure young Scottish actor named Sean Connery, who knows exactly how to steal a scene by the sheer exuberance of his style.

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Pual Daneman as Richard III

Other members of the cast who have gone far include Judi Dench as Princess Catherine in “Henry V” and Eileen Atkins as Joan of Arc in “Henry VI, Part I.” The very nasty Queen Margaret is played by the very talented Mary Morris, whom some might remember as the only important female Number 2 in “The Prisoner” series. I must also mention the excellent Duke of Glouster/Richard III of Paul Daneman, who plays Richard as a dangerous and intelligent man.

I have lost count of how many clever directorial touches illuminate the text; and I can only wonder why so many of the excellent leading actors did not have more prominent screen careers afterwards.

While the picture and sound are not absolutely crystal clear, they are quite good; and I was delighted to find subtitles for those who cannot quite catch the often rapidly spoken dialogue.

There is a booklet that comes with background information about the series and its making, along with some nice production photos. Unhappily, it does not list the cast—a serious omission. One has to wait for the end of each episode to see who plays whom; but real fanatics will hit the pause button and take notes.

I can only urge my readers to get a copy of this historic project, which is selling at a surprisingly low suggested price.

Modern Costumes Ill Fit Shakespeare’s Poetry in “Two Gentlemen of Verona”

Modern Costumes Ill Fit Shakespeare’s Poetry in “Two Gentlemen of VeronaA-SH-Two Gentlemen of Verona [RSC]

Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is an early comedy that foreshadows many of the elements to come in his more mature works. A young woman dresses as a young man, three men are in love with the same woman, a father stands in the way of true love, rings are exchanged and one is given inappropriately, and other elements that audiences had grown to expect.

Technically, this play is a “romance” (as opposed to farce or problem comedy). Some of it takes place in the woods where is found a band of brigands that might have been the inspiration for the overly scrupulous Pirates of Penzance some three centuries later.

At any rate, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon gave a lively production of “Two Gentlemen” in 2014, and it can be seen on an Opus Arte DVD. I did not follow with a text, but I am sure that it is complete, including all of the silly banter between the clownish servants Speed (Martin Bassindale) and Launce (Roger Morlidge). Taking a chance, they use a live dog to play Crab (Mossup), who steals the scenes from Launce.

The young lovers are youthful enough. Proteus (Mark Arends) loves his Julia (Pearl Chanda) in Verona until he goes to see his best friend Valentine (Michael Marcus) in Milano and falls in love with his friend’s beloved Silvia (Sarah MacRae). But her father the Duke (Jonny Glynn) prefers the loutish Turio (Nicholas Gerard-Martin)…and so on.

The pacing is quick and the dialogue is well spoken (although the subtitles are most welcome); but now and then the cast is directed to shout at one another or the women to shriek with delight. This play is about witty speech, not histrionics.

And that is why I can’t see why the director decided to set the action in the 1960s. Watch the version shown as part of the BBC Complete Shakespeare television series to see how gorgeous the Renaissance costumes are and how perfectly the heightened language fits them. At the RSC, the costumes could not have been more boring. Proteus spends most of the play in slacks and a white shirt; Julia’s dress in the early scenes could not look shabbier; Turio, who should be a dandy, is given a faded colored sports jacket; and Silvia, invariably described as goddess-like, is first seen doing something like the twist in a plain dress. Shakespearian speech sounds wrong in 1960.

Still in all, if updating doesn’t bother you, the production is very much worth seeing.

Richard II

Richard II” Gets a No-nonsense ProductionA-SH-Richard II RSC

I vowed never to watch any Shakespeare with David Tennant after he butchered the poetry of “Hamlet” in the 2009 telecast. Then I saw only the cover of the Opus Arte DVD release of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Richard II”; and there he was, dressed in white running shoes and some casual modern garb, sitting on a throne. I groaned and expected the worst.

What I got was possibly the best “Richard II” on video, shot during a performance at Stratford-on-Avon in 2013! The text is loudly and clearly spoken. Except for speaking his lines too quickly, Tennant respects the poetry of the text—and Richard’s character is that of a poet miscast as a king—and gives a creditable performance.

Others in the cast include Emma Hamilton (Queen), Michael Pennington (John of Gaunt), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke, later Henry IV), and Oliver Ford Davies (York). Jane Lapotaire does a star turn as the Duchess of Gloucester in the first scene, while the rest of the cast keeps up the pace in what is after all a very talky play.

My only disappointment is Lindsay, who gives no subtlety to his Bolingbroke. There should come a point at which the audience knows whether he came back from exile only to reclaim what Richard had stolen from him or he was definitely planning to seize the crown from the start. But when I direct the play myself, I will make it clear. Perhaps in this production Director Gregory Doran did not choose to do so.

The stage is a single set, consisting of a balcony and dimly colored backdrops that do not change from scene to scene. (Nor did it in Shakespeare’s time, so my comment is not negative.) The costumes in the first two scenes are quite colorful; but from then on the men are dressed in the dullest colors, designed perhaps to contrast with Richard’s Christlike white garment.

Putting all this aside, the lines are beautifully read, sometimes shouted. Moreover, this is one of the very few Shakespeare videos that is a staged production and that has subtitles! At last.

A very long pause in a scene with Richard and his cousin Aumerle (Oliver Rix) leading to up a kiss is utterly unnecessary or at least given too much stage time. And an interesting change is making Richard’s killer in the penultimate scene not Exton but Aumerle. This is why the tiny scene (V. iv) in which a certain Exton says he will kill Richard is omitted.  Other than that, the text is just about complete.

The two scenes Shakespeare intended to be funny—the throwing of glove after glove onto the ground as challenges (IV, i) and the pleading of Aumerle’s parents that King Henry should and should not kill their son (V, iii)—get the laughs they usually do.

The tracking is very helpful: each new scene gets its own track. This increases the educational value of this disc considerably. The running time is 165 minutes and there is a short interview with Tennant and a commentary. The latter is poorly done, because the sound track of the film is too loud and it is hard to hear what the director is saying. Didn’t any sound engineer or quality control person spot this?

All in all, this is still a grand “Richard II” and not to be missed.

Note.  The “Richard II” seen as part of the Complete Shakespeare series on Public Television and still available on DVDs has an excellent Richard in Derek Jacobi but it does have some cuts. An older production on VHS only with Michael Pennington in the lead role is hard to get and not worth it. Pennington is far too old for the role and almost all the scenes in which he does not appear are cut! There are one or two other videos which I have not seen.

Nevertheless, I will still recommend this Opus Arte disc as the one to have.

Henry IV, Parts 1, 2


Royal Shakespeare Company Performs Both Parts of “Henry IV”

Very few go to see Shakespeare’s 2-part “Henry IV” for the political plot. Rather they go to see Sir John Falstaff. My favorite video version, albeit abridged, is that included in the 1960s “An Age of Kings” with Robert Hardy as Prince Hal and Frank Pettingell as Falstaff. The BBC Shakespeare series has Anthony Quale as Falstaff, while the new “The Hollow Crown” butchers the poetry of all the plays in that series and is not worth considering.

Not long ago, Kultur released both parts of “Henry IV” as it was seen at the new Globe Theatre with an excellent Roger Allam as Falstaff, but he was given far too many “funny” bits; and the lack of subtitles made it difficult to follow many of the lines.

And now the Royal Shakespeare Company has produced an interesting “Henry IV, Parts 1 and II,” sold on the same label either separately or as a boxed set. Each Part is on 2 DVDs, each play with a running time of 168 minutes, plus some interesting bonus features and optional running commentary. Best of all, there are subtitles. But there are faults.

The next most popular character in Part I is Hotspur, who forms one vertex of a triangle: Hotspur is all for Honor, Falstaff  thinks it merely a word, Hal seems utterly unconcerned with it until he decides to surprise them all.  I think the best Hotspur is a very young Sean Connery in “An Age of Kings.” Tim Pigott-Smith is quite good in the BBC series. However, in this RSC production Trevor White looks far too old for the part and overdoes the hyper-energetic aspects of the character while underplaying the humor of it.

The comic scenes are paced very slowly, but most of the jokes fall flat. The scene with Ancient Pistol (Antony Byrne) misses fire, but those with Mistress Quickly (Paula Dionisotti) and Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gynne) are very nicely done. I am afraid that Jasper Britton’s King Henry is far too bland, while Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal is adequate but never outstanding.

Antony-Sher-Falstaff-and--008As for Antony Sher’s Falstaff, his take on the role is fascinating. In an interview, he says he sees the part not as a comic role but as a character one. Sher’s face has a certain manic look to it but one of intelligence. While I won’t say he is the best Falstaff of the lot, he is certainly a different one.

Given the complete text (only the Epilogue is omitted) and subtitles, I would recommend this set above all the rest. But do not ignore “An Age of Kings” by any means!