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These are dreams
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.