Saturday, February 12, 2011

Henry VI - The Complete BBC Shakespeare

Earl of Warwick. Then let the earth be drunken with our blood:
I'll kill my horse, because I will not fly.
Why stand we like soft-hearted women here,
Wailing our losses, whiles the foe doth rage;
And look upon, as if the tragedy
Were play'd in jest by counterfeiting actors?

(Henry VI part 3, 2.3.1051-1056)

Over the last few weeks, I've watched through the Complete BBC Shakespeare versions of Henry VI part 1, 2, and 3 - and all I can say is that counterfeiting actors, though playing this tragedy but in jest, can make it seem very real.

I came to these particular videos of the plays with low expectations, because, as Emma has pointed out, The Complete BBC Shakespeare series is somewhat uneven - many of the productions that I've seen in the past have been...well...clunky.

I was wrong about these ones though! The three Henry VIs are the best Shakespeare productions I've seen from the BBC. What makes them good? It sure isn't the sets, lighting or camera work, which are very basic and workman-like. It's the acting, which is across the board COMPLETELY AMAZING!!

(Bernard Hill, one of the amazing actors, addresses the audience as the Duke of York)

Jane Howell directs these plays, along with Richard III (week after next's play!), as a tetralogy, with steady casting of the lead roles across all four productions. And what a cast she had - especially worthy of note are Trevor Peacock as Talbot, David Burke as Gloucester, Bernard Hill as York, and Mark Wing-Davey as Warwick. But just about everyone is tremendously good - easy to understand, expressive in voice and language, and committed to their characters in a way that sweeps the viewer into the story.

And this suspension of disbelief is quite remarkable given the constraints of the production. These videos are in no way cinematic: all the action takes place on one non-realistic theatrical set that - at first glance - looks as if it were a cross between a jungle-gym and a fire-escape built out of left-over lumber found in a forgotten storeroom somewhere.

(Joan la Pucelle with Alencon, the Dauphin, Reignier, and the Bastard of Orleans from Part 1. The simple set can be seen in the background)

An additional complication in watching this series also comes from some of the multiple casting issues. As I've mentioned previously, the Henry 6 plays have the largest casts in all of Shakespeare; Howell, going off of the kind of casting practices that were almost certainly used by Shakespeare's own theater company, has a core troupe that manages, through clever costume and makeup changes, to cover all the roles. This allows for some great actors to brighten up some otherwise small and less prominent parts - for example, the messengers at the beginning of Part 1 are played wonderfully by the actors who later take on the leading roles of Edward IV and Richard III in Part 3 - but it can also be rather confusing in a play where it's tricky enough already to keep up with all the characters. My advice? If you see someone you recognize coming in with a different hat on, assume that he is a different character.

How can you get your hands on these versions of the plays? Well, if you want to buy them, they are ridiculously expensive (the Henry VIs aren't included in some of the cheaper boxed sets of the more popular plays, and the complete dvd set of all 37 will cost you about a grand). BUT hie thee to the library, as pretty much every library on the planet has - or can access - a set of the complete BBC Shakespeare.

On the whole, I strongly recommend these productions. I wasn't able to watch them all at one go (the three productions require quite a time commitment - Parts 1, 2, and 3 are 185, 212, and 210 minutes respectively), but this gave me an indication of how much I was enjoying them -  between each film I looked forward to starting the next and engaging again with these fascinating characters. Even with the theatrical, non-realistic set and basic production values, I found them exciting, compelling, and intensely moving. Can we believe that wars and dramatic death take place on a small stage? As is asked in Henry V, can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? After watching these Henry VIs, my answer is a resounding yes.

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