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on 22 January 2006
In some ways it's a DVD box set, much like any other box set of a BBC series, say I, Claudius, or Doctor Who. Thirty-seven plays of Shakespeare are collected from the BBC's series which ran from 1978 to 1985. There were three producers, Cedric Messina, Jonathan Miller, and Shaun Sutton, but the BBC's house style dominates. These productions were budgeted at about £200,000 a piece, with scheduled rehearsal time of 30 days, and a shooting schedule of five to eight days. Most of the plays were shot at the BBC's television center, Studio 1, but two plays, As You Like It and King Henry VIII were shot on location, and had longer shooting schedules. When the series was first aired there was criticism about budget, production values, and other things but now after time has passed, these productions are held in higher esteem than they had when the plays first aired. Part of the reason must be the relative completeness of the series. Only Two Noble Kinsmen is overlooked, probably because it was not generally included in Shakespeare's complete editions when the plays were broadcast.
In other ways, it's much more than a DVD box set. It's Shakespeare's writing of course that carries the day, and the actors who bring the plays to life. For powerhouse acting Othello with Anthony Hopkins as the Moor, and Bob Hoskins as Iago gets the nod, but other plays and performers also got my notice. And they may not be the ones that are often thought of. Peter Benson as Henry VI and Julia Foster as his Queen Margaret, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, Timothy West as Cardinal Wolsey, Brian Glover as Bottom, Frank Middlemass as Lear's Fool, Jonathan Pryce as Timon, and Richard Pasco as Jaques are just a few of the actors and roles that impressed me. There are surprises too. A minor pop star Brian Protheroe shows up in Titus Andronicus, the Henry VI plays, and Richard III. He's good in the roles he plays. I'd like to see more of him. Four actresses, Helen Mirren as Rosiland, Titania, and Imogen, Clair Bloom as Gertrude, the Queen in Cymbeline and Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona and Regan, and Jane Lapotaire as Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra also caught my attention.

It's often asserted that these plays are Shakespeare uncut. This is not true. There are many cuts, and a few additions. For example take The Taming of the Shrew. Act 1, Scene 1 is cut, and at the end Petruchio and Kate's exit is cut and the cast sits around a table and sings the 128th Psalm, which is no where found in the play. Then look at Cymbeline where acts four and five are heavily cut and scenes and speeches are freely rearranged. And finally look at Henry VI Part 3 Act 2, Sen. 1. In the play Edward and Richard enter, and their brother George is no where to be found. In the BBC version, George is there and he speaks some of Edward's and Richard's lines. There is plenty of tinkering going on here, the best part is the price.
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on 5 December 2005
I recommend this collection highly to all Shakespeare lovers. Ever since I've received it, I've watched one play almost every night,and I've enjoyed very much the plays I've seen so far. It is great to have the entire collection, and not just a few plays, and even though there are edits and inevitable directorial interpretations, I feel these productions are more faithful to Shakespeare than some cinematic endeavours we've been used to, if only because the relative barrenness of the settings is more historically faithful to original practices and thus more attention is paid to Shakespeare's language. For in language, both spoken as well as body language, is where the power of Shakespeare's drama lies, and this is very evident in the BBC productions. Having said that, I will add that a lot of attention has been paid to settings and costumes.
Casts of wonderful actors make the characters really come alive. Jane Lapotaire is wonderful as Cleopatra and as Lady Macbeth, Anthony Quayle is a memorable Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV, Tim Piggott Smith captures Hotspur perfectly in the same, Jon Finch looks exactly as I've imagined the usurping Bolingbroke to look, the 14 year old Rebecca Saire is a superb Juliet, the plebeians in Julius Caesar resemble contemporary tradesmen and speak in a sort of delightful Cockney accent. These are just a few examples from the plays I've had time to watch so far. Crucially, I was delighted to see the actors do the roles in different ways than the cinematic productions often condition us to think about the characters. For instance, look out for Juliet's nanny in the BBC production as opposed to that in Zefirelli's film.
It is also interesting to see some very well known British actors, a mix of Shakespeareans like John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi, along with more popularly known actors such as Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Anthony Hopkins or Clive Swift.
All 37 DVDs come in slim cases, there is also a little brochure with some stills from the productions, an introduction which I found quite interesting, and details about the date, director, and cast of each production. It all comes in a beautiful box, which is a joy to behold. Yes, the top flap on mine is also torn, it seems to have happened to everyone, and the top and bottom of the Antony and Cleopatra slim case was also broken, but I wouldn't exaggerate. It's hardly reason to fault the entire collection. The DVD's themselves are fine, and of excellent quality.
In sum, the collection is very worth investing in, and I'm very glad I bought it. I dare say it is a must for any lover of Shakespeare and something that will stay with you for many years to come.
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on 5 August 2011
The first thing that must be stressed is that, while there are many five star moments in this great undertaking, it would not be right to give five stars to the whole because there such is an enormous variation in the quality of these 37 productions. This is in large part because there is an enormous variation in the quality of the 37 plays themselves. Whisper it, but many of them would be all but forgotten today, and in some cases rightly, if they did not happen to be written by the man who also wrote Hamlet, etc. On top of that, there is a wide variation in the production values of this collection. This started out as a major prestige project by the BBC, complete with a wonderfully pompous score by Sir William Walton, expensive outside broadcast location work, and big name Shakespearean actors: the opening words of the whole project are spoken by Sir John Gielgud himself in Romeo and Juliet. However, by the end, the budgets had obviously become a lot tighter, the sets more stage-like or even studio-like, and the casts dominated by television regulars, albeit generally good ones. There is a feeling of "let's get this thing done" about a few of the later productions. In between came Dr Jonathan Miller's attempt to impose a Baroque house style on the project. At their best, his sumptuous visuals are an artistic treat in their own right, as well as serving to lift some of the weaker plays, like Cymbeline, but it cannot be denied that they can be an irritating distraction in those productions, notably King Lear with Sir Michael Hordern, which have the dramatic power to involve the viewer without the need for gimmicks. Indeed, taking the project as a whole, it is fair to say its greatest successes were some great productions of some of Shakespeare's lesser works, but its productions of the more famous plays fell short of the very greatest adaptations of them. That is only be expected, and is in itself no criticism, because the competition is so overwhelming: for example, there is nothing wrong with this BBC version of Henry V but with the Olivier and Branagh versions easily available why bother watching one with television production values? Yet those same television values have been turned to advantage in plays where the viewer might have lower expectations. The difficult Henry VI trilogy turned out to be one of the triumphs of the project, thanks to the inventive use of a single stage-like set and the employment of a strong team of actors in multiple roles - a concept Shakespeare would have recognised and enjoyed. A different approach, exploiting television's ability to use outside broadcast locations, lifted Henry VIII above its usual level as a Tudor propaganda piece - again, aided by a superb cast. Good casting is the underlying strength of the whole project. It coincided with both the Golden Age of British television and the end of the post-War Shakespearean revolution on the stage, and it used actors from both. It is also interesting to see young talents who have since made it on the big screen showing early promise. If there are a few obvious mistakes in the casting, they stand out only because the general quality is so good. The project is distinguished by having more than its fair share of bench-mark performances, which set, or should set, the standard by which subsequent performances may be judged, including, among others, Hordern's Lear, the future Dame Helen Mirren's Rosalind in As You Like It, Sir Anthony Quayle's Falstaff in Henry IV, the future Sir Derek Jacobi's Richard II, the future Sir Ben Kingsley's Ford in Merry Wives of Windsor, Keith Michell's Antony in Julius Caesar, Trevor Peacock's Talbot and Bernard Hill's York in Henry VI, Timothy West's Wolsey in Henry VIII, Joss Ackland's Menenius in Coriolanus, Norman Rodway's Apemantus in Timon of Athens, John Shrapnel's Hector and Charles Gray's Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida, Felicity Kendal`s Viola in Twelfth Night, Claire Bloom's Gertrude in Hamlet, Hugh Quarshie's Aaron and Edward Hardwicke's Marcus in Titus Andronicus, Bob Hoskins' Iago in Othello, Peter Jeffrey's Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, Jeremy Kemp's Leontes and Margaret Tyzack's Paulina in The Winter's Tale, Jane Lapotaire's Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Tony Doyle's Macduff in Macbeth, Cherie Lunghi`s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing ...the list could go on. All stick in the memory. The casting of John Cleese as Petruchio in the Taming of the Shrew and Leonard Rossiter as King John, both considered daring in their day, stand the test of time very well. It is also good to be reminded that Sir Donald Sinden, Clive Swift, and Robert Lindsay, actors now best known for their sitcom work, are first class Shakespeareans. A number of actors, including Hordern, Mirren, and Lindsay, appear in several different plays, so that the project sometimes has a pleasant "repertory" feel to it: it is a shame that this aspect was not developed further. Watching the whole thing over the last thing over the last couple of months has given the best possible overview of Shakespeare - and it would have been life-changing to have had the opportunity to do so as a teenager, when they first came out but over a period of seven years. As it is, this beautifully boxed set would be the perfect gift for any young person with intellectual, literary, or dramatic inclinations. It is an education in itself and a significant contribution to recent British cultural history.
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on 31 July 2006
How wonderful to have the entire Shakespeare canon at your finger-tips! This is really where current DVD technology comes into its own.

These would be great for any student studying the Bard and his works; to be able to see rather than just read the plays. In any case it is a joy for all of us who are interested.

There may be one or two duds production-wise, but who cares when you have Derek Jacobi's Hamlet, a definitive Twelfth Night, a beautiful All's Well That Ends Well etc etc.

Look out too for Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Brenda Blethyn, Robert Lindsay, Ian Charleson, Jane Lapotaire, Michael Hordern, Helen Mirren , Alan Howard, Anthony Hopkins, Felicity Kendall, Nicol Williamson and Jonathon Pryce...

As someone else here has pointed out, it may seem like a large financial investment, but per dvd it is a bargain and how many nights out at the theatre would you get for that sort of money!

Oh and you get to keep them...forever...
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on 16 August 2006
Among reviewers - a possible buyer raised one question: Have these plays, from BBC, English subtitles ? Answer: Yes - they have english subtitles: For the Hard of Hearing. Or for any one else!

Bjorn Bennike - Denmark
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on 6 September 2007
Twenty years ago I studied Macbeth as part of an English Lit O level and failed. To be fair, Macbeth was the most interesting part of the course and, without it, I'd probably have got a U grade. But, as I got older, a lot of it stayed with me, and after a newfound interest in theatre I decided to buy this box set. And I can honestly say that this is probably the best hundred or so quid I've ever spent (apart from perhaps my acoustic guitar).

It arrived about a week ago and already I've watched 6 or 7 of the 37 plays presented. The production values are high (considering the time and budget) but what shines through, apart from some truly great performances, is the sheer chocolate cake richness of Shakespeare's language. I prefer to watch with the subtitles on (it's easy to miss something) and with the RSC Complete Works beside me in case something goes entirely over my head.

It really is criminal that it took until my thirty seventh year for me to appreciate how great these plays are. But now I have them forever, and I know that each of these DVDs will be watched over and over again. Buy this collection today! Or buy an acoustic guitar. But don't do anything else with the money.
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on 15 November 2006
Buyers watch out for some defective DVDs this brilliant collection possibly contains!

So far I have discovered distorted video on "Henry VI. Part Two" from chapter 22 to 23

and on "Henry VI. Part Three" from chapter 27 to 28.

I would not know to tell whether I was just unlucky having received a bad copy. I was too late to claim when I discovered this issue. You better inspect each volume of the edition right after delivery.
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on 16 March 2009
All the plays of the world's greatest playwright for just £2 each - that's an offer I couldn't refuse. The plays were produced 30 years ago, so don't expect hi-res pictures and Hollywood style budgets with special effects and hundreds of extras. But who cares about that, when you get a lot of fine acting, thoughtful and exciting productions (with, admittedly, a few dull ones), and 37 of the world's best plays, brimming with kings and commoners, heroes and villains, lovely princesses and fiend-like queens, ghosts and fairies, battles and duels, young love, lechery, jealousy, sublime poetry and dirty jokes, carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, things dying and things newborn, - a veritable feast for your imagination and emotions. An added bonus for us foreigners in the dark corners of Europe is the chance to see those plays performed that haven't made it to the silver screen.
Peter G, Denmark
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This massive box set contains all 36 of Shakespeare's plays on 37 discs (Richard III is split across two discs). As far as I can tell (though I'm no expert so might be wrong) the productions follow the original texts faithfully, and no cuts have been made. All the DVD's have English subtitles, which also have no cuts. The discs are presented in 36 slim line cases, contained in a sturdy and well decorated cardboard box. The hinge on the lid is the only let down, this seems to tear quite easily.

The productions all date from the period 1978-1984. Set design is usually pretty basic and typical of stage productions, though there are some imaginative variations, notably the water garden/forest sets of Midsummer night's dream, and the playground setting for Henry VI parts 1,2 and 3 and Richard III.

The series employs a wide range of actors, from notable Shakespeareans such as Gielgud and Jacobi to more unusual choices such as John Cleese (as a notable Petruchio in taming of the shrew) and Bob Hoskins (as a gangsterish Iago)Using this range of actors, not all of whom are familiar with Shakespearean acting, often provides a different characterisation than we're used to, and makes the plays quite accessible.

There are a lot of plays here, so it's impossible to discuss all of them. The particular highlights for me were Richard III - we're all used to Olivier's pantomime villain, rabidly chewing whatever scenery comes to hand. Here we're presented with Ron Cook's very understated performance, the complete opposite of Olivier. This makes some of Richards deeds seem the more shocking, as he seems an ordinary person. John Cleese as Petruchio is a revelation. It would have been so easy for him to play it as Basil Fawlty, but here he makes Petruchio a considerate character, with whom we have much sympathy. Titus Andronicus, usually considered one of the 'difficult' plays is here made quite watchable by a superb Trevor Peacock, with Hugh Quarshie making a suitably slimy Aaron. The best plays though have to be Henry IV parts 1 and 2. For two reasons - Jon Finch's perfectly nuanced Henry IV, and Anthony Quayle as the greatest Falstaff I have ever seen. He nearly brought me to tears in the final scene with his reaction to Harry's devastating "I know thee not old man". Compare this to Richard Griffiths' Falstaff in Merry Wives Of Windsor - it's a good performance (and one of my favourite plays) but just not in the same class as Quayle.

There are very few low points here. And those are due to the writer, not the productions. Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love Labours Lost are particularly difficult to get through, but that is true no matter who puts them on.

At the price being asked this is an excellent way to get hold of all the Bard's plays on DVD, worth while for the casual fan (such as myself), and I would guess to teachers and scholars, due to the textual faithfulness and the interesting slant and different readings of some well known characters. Highly recommended.
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on 30 December 2008
First of all, let's be clear: filmed theatre is always going to be a poor substitute for the real thing. There are some pros - no pneumonic behind you coughing up every last alveolus, no big head in front acting out a total eclipse, a rewind button for those bits you nodded off in - and the lack of one big con: live theatre lies more audaciously than television or cinema ever can, however many terabytes are jiggling your pixels. You can cram the vasty fields of France into the wooden O only if your imagination is prepared to go for the ride; if not, then stay on the sofa.

The transformation from three dimensions into two too often loses more than one kind of depth, and this loss is not made up for by any amount of realism. L. C. Knights said of Olivier's Hamlet: "It was a good film, as films go, but no one who knew Shakespeare could fail to be impressed by the thinness of effect achieved by the obtrusiveness of the medium. Not only was the mind distracted by the lace of Hamlet's collar... the photographic realism inhibited... any but the crudest response... There is a point beyond which naturalism in art defeats its presumed aim of richness and density, and makes simply for thinness and superficiality." Try telling that to Hollywood.

If you want location and lace you'll be disappointed by these BBC productions, confined to the studio and by the kinds of budgets that might buy a minute of a Harry Potter movie. To conclude that their success must therefore be in the same proportion would, however, be a mistake. They achieve as high a degree of theatrical realism as is perhaps possible on a screen, and consistently reveal solo and ensemble acting of the highest order. Ever since Peter Brook's empty space, modern theatre audiences have learned not to feel shortchanged by sparse sets, and indeed will have come to associate them with great acting. In fact, if you can't act you will not last long in such an environment, while good actors will thrive when allowed a more direct contact with the audience. As Joe Queenan observes, "Once you are a movie star, raising the question of your acting ability is not only irrelevant; it borders on the impolite."

With a book, it's always possible to use quotes to give some flavour of the author's ideas and style. Even if I could include clips, it's obviously impossible to do justice to thirty-seven DVDs. I could take a thousand words to describe how Derek Jacobi screams and falls to the ground after the ghost of his father departs for the first time; how he catches Ophelia out when he sees her holding her book upside down and how this realization that they're being overheard generates real emotional heat and adds psychological method to the otherwise antic "are you honest?"; how we see him unselfconsciously painting the face of the player queen (played by a boy), relaxed in a way he never is at court. This is to pick out just one of the many great actors and great performances. Not everything will be to your taste, but even if you dislike a whole production there's plenty more to choose from.

The Claudius to Jacobi's Hamlet is Patrick Stewart, who is - nearly thirty years later - playing the part again on the London stage. Such opportunities to juxtapose performances are rare indeed: in both, Stewart, once alone, physically wretches just before "O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven". The ephemerality of performance is of course part of what is special about theatre, and the parallel ephemerality of acting careers adds poignancy. However good you are, there are few who make it to the top and fewer who are still there a generation later. Earlier this year I saw Trevor Peacock play Verges at the National, a minor role brought off brilliantly, but he was not the "star" of that production and was probably not even mentioned in most reviews. There was something familiar about him, and then it clicked: I'd been enthralled by his magnificent Talbot and his rousing Jack Cade in the Jonathan Miller productions of Henry VI. That gives you some insight into the remarkable depth behind what otherwise might seem like a minor career, and argues for this collection as an important record of achievement. For those (un)lucky enough to qualify for the attention of "Before They Were Famous", there's nothing embarrassing here for Bird and Fortune (Timon), Helen Mirren and Robert Lindsay (Cymbeline), Brenda Blethyn (Lear), and many others.

The BBC Shakespeare was seen as a prestige project, which generated its own internal drama. Cedric Messina, who produced Hamlet, was sacked after hostile reviews, and his Much Ado was deleted from the list of productions (Shaun Sutton thought it should never be transmitted and later broadcast his own production). Jonathan Miller was brought in and steadied both nerves and critical reception. At this distance, such handbags at dawn can seem nothing more than a self-indulgent clashing of overblown egos. But, having watched maybe half of this boxset, at least some part of the squabble must have been because those involved really cared about the project, and about producing the best work they could.

Attitudes about how theatre should look and sound on the small screen may well have shifted, although the fundamental problems will never change: the lack of an audience for the actors and the lack of an atmosphere for the audience will always be the main drawback that no amount of technology will remedy. This collection, for all its flaws, still deserves the full five stars, and even if you only watch these as a warm up for the real thing, you will not have wasted your money.
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