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A theatre on your bookshelf
on 6 September 2012
This is like having a cast `producers can only dream of' sit on your bookshelf, ready and willing to recite beautiful verse at your whim.
For those like myself who know little of the sonnets beyond comparing a loved one to a summer's day, this disc is something of a revelation.
It's easy to see how they fit with the Bard's stage works. 94, recited by Polly Frame is like something from the Scottish Play, 154 a `Director's Cut DVD Extra' from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," for example.
Even clearer is the modern day relevance of it all, as a dishevelled Stephen Fry demonstrates that 130 was a precursor to Les Dawson and all other irreverent `partner' jokes; while 50, in the hands of Simon Callow, is close to "Fifty Shades of Grey."
There's wisdom: 70 being as good as "The Merchant of Venice" for legal advice, 29 and 30 on the importance of reputation, 148 cautioning the exercising of judgement; and of course plenty of talk about love. From the lachrymose 145's touching outpouring from Jo Stone-Fewings, to happier commentary - 91 is worth studying as a declaration par excellence.
One principal enjoyment is that these pieces are not just delivered by actors. Best of all is Cicely Berry, Director of Voice and Text with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her "Th'expense of spirit is a waste of shame" should be studied closely by anybody taking to the stage, whether with Shakespearian or modern text.
There's regional UK accents galore, with a fiery Niamh McGrady, mellow Tunji Kasim and of course notable David Tennant among them. From the USA, Kim Cattrall and James Shapiro have accents which (I seem to recall) may be even more authentic with the period than the measured perfection of Patrick Stewart or Dominic West.
Also interesting is the way in which each sonnet is delivered. The careful voice coach already mentioned, the dramatic acting of Fiona Shaw and the other stage folk or the questing academic investigative from Katherine Duncan-Jones. Whatever the background of the speaker, each is delivered against a varied setting, some modern, some ancient, others simply artistic, which add visual colour to the words.
Of course, with 154 sonnets to film, there's the odd one which might benefitted from different delivery, but the overall standard is remarkably high. The only other criticism I might make was in the navigation of the disc. While the menus allow access by sonnet or author, both my DVD players wouldn't then allow the rest to play out in sequence from any single point. This means either watching the disc in a single viewing (you'll be tempted) or being prepared to juggle menus after each reading. After contacting the production company, I learned that I had been sent a very early copy of the DVD, and that this fault has now been corrected. They sent me a corrected version (no charge, thank you!) and indeed you can now watch in sequence from any point - a joy for this beautifully presented collection.
Both the glossy booklet with the DVD, and a message on the disc itself direct viewers to an "app" that promises enhanced features like notes from the Arden Shakespeare, a facsimile of the original publication, and a commentary by Don Paterson. While no doubt fascinating, this DVD in itself will satisfy many fans - and win others - of these amazing lines.