If you’ve ever wandered among the shelves at your local library in search of a video of one of Shakespeare's plays, you may have noticed that there are a lot of Shakespearean BBC productions from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Why is that? Well, it turns out that right about then the BBC was gripped with an urgent desire to make TV productions of virtually every British classic play or book. This is why you will also find BBC video adaptations of the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and other Authors of Note tucked between the innumerable BBC murder mysteries and episodes of something called The Forsyte Saga (which you’d expect would be about Vikings, but is in fact a story about upper class British people).
Needless to say, adaptation frenzy led to a BBC telly series with productions of every single Shakespeare play (The Brits are thorough like that. Shakespeare didn't skip writing any of his plays, and the BBC didn't skip producing any of them). And this series' production of Two Gentlemen of Verona was in fact the only video of the play I could get my hands on other than ‘A Spray of Plum Blossoms.’
So, would you like to know how Shakespeare girl and I liked this video? Of course! So here is my review!
First and worst, the beginning of this production is slow. The actors seemed to me to still be finding their characters (over-rehearsing was not a problem that characterized these BBC productions). It also took me a few minutes to get used to the budget sets and 1980’s TV film quality.
If you happened to read the cast list for this production on IMDB, you might have noticed that it includes several actors listed to play “Cupids.” This is just as worrisome as it sounds - the presence of oddly-dressed, awkward children with gold-painted faces in several of the scenes in Milan is not only unexplained, it is also quite bizarre, to say the least. I read here that this was meant to be a “garden of courtly love” motif, but I merely found it unnerving.
The unabashedly modern “forest” set, which appears to have been created largely from steel and green pipe cleaners, is also not a strong point. Neither are the Bee-Gees-style “doublets” and longish hair sported by Valentine (John Hudson) and Proteus’ (Tyler Butterworth), style choices which I’m pretty sure were not based on careful historical research of clothing in Renaissance Verona.
The play really does pick up steam as it goes along. I found myself surprised and touched by the latter scenes, especially Tessa Peake-Jones’ performance as the jilted Julia. She emphasized Julia’s softer side, and I thought it was heartbreakingly effective.
This is Julia - doesn't she look sweet?
This production captured Proteus’ descent into villainy quite well. Butterworth does some good interpreting, and he's well set up by the other actors. Peake-Jones as Julia was already mentioned, but Silvia (Joanne Pearce) and the Duke (Paul Daneman) also helped in their very believable, but non-script-required, reactions to Proteus. And I have to say that Proteus’ disco-cool/Renaissance fashion sense actually seemed oddly appropriate for a man getting wickeder and wickeder.
Proteus (left) and Valentine
Great Renaissance tunes from the “Consort of Musick” were featured throughout - my brother thought that the lead singer in the opening song was the prominent British early music singer Emma Kirkby, and it does look like her. However, I have not been able to verify this (if anyone knows one way or another, feel free to message me!). I also loved the melody of their song to Silvia - beauteous.
The End of the Matter...
This is perhaps not where I would start if looking for a first movie introduction to Shakespeare. And there are some stylistic issues. But I found it to be a solid - and even moving - interpretation of the play, with a lot of great storytelling. Kudos to the BBC for putting together an enjoyable production of this rarely seen play!