Cecil Smith thinks well of the BBC’s “Shakespeare Plays” series and Cecil is an honorable man. Too, he has probably seen more of the series than I have. I gave it a good try for a couple of seasons, but have only tuned in intermittently since . . . and not stayed long. The flesh is weak.
My good memories of the series include Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet, a Chekhovian Hamlet who didn’t realize there was so much evil in the world, and Kevin Billington’s production of “Henry VIII,” with its echoes of “The Godfather.” The bad memories include “Julius Caesar” in bed sheets, a “Comedy of Errors” with no laughs (though it kept insisting it had them) and the most wooden characterization of Juliet that I have ever seen, in or out of Equity Waiver theater.
Most episodes of the series probably weren’t dreadful, just dull. That’s no crime. If “The Shakespeare Plays” were to go quietly into the vaults, there wouldn’t be any point in hectoring it. Unfortunately, the series seems to be headed for the schools. This is a mistake. It not only sends young people the wrong signals about Shakespeare, it sends them the wrong ones about the theater.
An example is the last episode in the series, “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” It is well-spoken and, in a sense, witty. But it is teacup Shakespeare: words-words-words, with very little sense of the people to whom they are attached.
Granted that this is a problem in any production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which Shakespeare seems to have meant as a satire on his more bookish friends. That euphuistic language is hard to bring alive. But it can be done. The Old Globe Theatre got some very funny results by setting the play out on the croquet lawn at Oxford during the “Charley’s Aunt” era.
And the last scene can be unexpectedly moving. The King of France has died, the Princess must return home and there will be no weddings for at least a year. A Stratford, Ont., production staged by Michael Langham ended with a yellow leaf falling from one of those green trees--the first touch of winter.
The BBC “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is well-bred, and that’s it. Breaking a rule that the series never should have had in the first place, it is updated to the 18th Century. The indoor scenes are in a country gentleman’s library. The outdoor scenes are set. . . .
Where? On the stage, we know that the Princess of France and her ladies have been rudely forced to camp out in tents, while the King of Navarre and his gentlemen lock themselves inside their walls like monks. That’s the joke of the play: the men realizing, with the girls just outside their walls, that they don’t want to be monks. Here it’s not clear that the girls are just outside the walls. They might be in the next county. The joke gets diluted.
Later the boys decide to sneak out and visit the girls, disguised as Muscovites. It’s always a funny entrance, with the men in their phony beards and the women pretending to be impressed. It’s an entrance Shakespeare wrote into the play. In the BBC version, the “Russians” are simply there, and there isn’t a smile in it.
The TV viewer may smile faintly when the boys discover each other writing love notes in the library, but the joke is much less funny when cut up into separate shots by the camera than when we can take in everyone at once. As for the last scene, it’s read well, but there’s little sense of a serious change in the wind. These people will live in a Watteau world forever.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” isn’t a deep play, but it doesn’t need to be as bland as this. Still, it is the whole text, you may say. Wrong. Follow along with the text and you’ll find that plenty of cuts have been made. You will also find that Armado’s little page, Moth, is played by a full-grown actor. Again this blows the joke: a wise child putting down his vain master.
All in all, this “Love’s Labour’s Lost” isn’t particularly entertaining, isn’t particularly scholarly and wouldn’t turn anyone on to Shakespeare. In that, it seems to me typical of the series. Any educator who has actually watched these shows, and has actually enjoyed them, should get them for his school. If he has found them a bore, he should trust that reaction.