WITH "ROMEO AND JULIET" the BBC has lately reached the halfway mark of the first season of what some of my English correspondents are referring to as the Bardathon.
Still to come on television this spring is a Shakespearean mixed grill of plays early, middle and late: "Richard II," Measure for Measure" and "Henry VIII." After that, 31 more plays over the next five years. So it is a trifle premature to think of passing judgment on the enterprise-heralded, for once with exaggeration-as the most ambitious dramatic programming in the fledgling history of television, although maybe not too soon to ask how well we are launched, and to voice some worries and hopes about the possible shape of things to come.
Can Shakespeare be successfully served up to mass televisio audience? Or (more previsely) to the culture-minded public willing to endure, for the cause, the mind-numbing rattling of the WETA collection cup?
There are still some elitist types around who pooh-pooh the whole idea as vulgarization of the sacred Bard. They speak of the inherent cheapness of the medium. Surely, however, the medium is not inherently cheap, any more than it is inherently classy, but merely an electronic eye transmitting to us images selected fo it. That TV is a popular vehicle does not of itself make it contemptible. Shakespeare was himself a common player, and his plays appealed to the heterogeneous masses long before assuming the status of literary classics.
They were also, from the first, wonderfully malleable. We associate Shakespeare with the Globe playhouse; but his company also acted at the Blackfriars theater, which, unlike the Globe, was small, enclosed and artificially lighted. They also played before their sovereign at court, and hit the road for provincial tours in towns with no theaters at all. Shakespeare's plays have since been mangled in adaptations (with "Lear" given a happy ending), translated into strang tongues, and made the basis for operas, ballets and films. Not long ago in London, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company put on a musical version of "The Comedy of Errors," with lyrics drawn directly from Shakespeare's text. At the end of the last production number many in the audience, which included lots of children, joined in the singing without any bidding from the cast. I'd never seen the like before in the decorous West End. One local paper picked the production the best musical of the year. Shakespeare on television? Why not?
Of course everything depends on how you go about it. If Cedric Messina, executive producer of the BBC series, and his stable of directos have had previous experience with Shakespeare, I'm no aware of it. Mainly they have the proven track record of "Masterpiece Theatre" to guide them. Literate, lushly mounted, and almost invariably well acted, these programs are filmed against picturesque outdoor scenery-cliffs, castles, you name it-or meticulously recreated studio backdrops.
Wherever one can be managed, there is an authentically costumed fancy dress ball; it is almost as though "Masterpiece Theatre" obtained its base on balls. Few of the scripts have had theatrical origin. Some, notably those from Victorian novels, have enjoyed conspicuous artistic as well as popular success. But the concept also poses dangers. Everything receives the same leveling dignity of treatment, whether the subject is Elizabeth, the Virgin of Queen, or Lillie Langtry, heroine of the current 13-part epic recounting the making (in more sense than one) of a high-class courtesan. And the BBC has shown itself capable of converting the gold of "Ann Karenina" into soap-opera dross. Shakespeare resists such alchemy.
Here, however, the producer can opt for an apparently safe middle ground: real palaces for some productions, frank studio mock-ups for others; scripts respectfully full but not complete (although almost complete for "Julius Caesar"); casts include new faces along with seasoned veterans-Patrick Ryecart and Sir John Gielgud for "Romeo and Juliet." How are we doing so far? On my personal score card I've put down one hit and two strikeouts.
The hit came first. For "Julius Caesar," Robert Wise, the director who won his Roman spurs with "I Claudius" a few years back, made do with a modest budget as these things go. No chariots rolled through Wise's Rome, a few dozen togas seemed like more in the crowd scenes, and the sets-steps, columns, some statues, and painted backdrops-had the look of bargain-basement De Mille. Maybe just as well. The splendor of this play resides in its language, and for the big occasions Wise had the acting resources to draw upon.
Keith Michell (best known here for his Henry VIII a few years back) made Marc Antony's funeral oration, surely one of the purplest passages in all drama, sound freshly minted. It was a marvel to see him, through sheer eloquence, rouse the mob to a fever of mutiny while ostensibly disclaiming any such intention. In his mouth the word "honourable," repeated over and over, became an obscenity. That fine Shakespearean actor Richard Pasco gave Brutus a sensitively thoughtful reading. He was a well matched by Virginia McKenna as his wife, Portia. Their affecting single scene together demonstrated the special advantages of television for such intimate occasions.
From the moment in whch Calphurnia looked on in wide-eyed dismay as Decius smoothly talked her husband out of his supersitious forebodings, until the assassination in the capitol and its aftermath in the market-place, we were watching first-class television-and excellent Shakespeare too. Camera movement was fluid, soliloquy (except for the most impassioned moments) accomplished by voice-over. The camera zeroed in for close-ups: long shots were few. The technique gave the murder of Caesar a startling intimacy. His last words, "Et tu, Brute ?-Then fall Caesar," were gasped into the face of the assailant holding him in a murderous embrace.
Also extraordinarily effective was the follow-up in which the conspirators bathed their hands in Caesar's blood. We always knew from the play that this is what happens. But how repulsively vivid that blood became in close-up! Here televison had advantage over the inevitable distancing that occurs on the stage.
How well could ordinary Americans follow the Elizabethan English? That is a question all the plays will in varying degrees raise. As a bar-fly Shakespeare buff observe over his beer in last Sunday's episode of "All in the Family," the word "rent" in "Julius Caesar" means "gash," not what you pay the landlord. Or take "ta'en," for example. Cassius decides on suicide after being informed-mistakenly, as it turns out-that Titinius has been "ta'en": that is, taken, or captured. Editions furnish a handy gloss, but the danger certainly exists that some viewers will miss the explanation, tersely delivered, for a key turning point.
The problem, though, doesn't arise specifically from the tube, but would occur as well in the theater. Nor does it point up the difference between English and American viewers: Your London man in the street doesn't walk around saying "ta'en" either. It helps to have read the play recently; and television, as we know from past experience, sends many back to the books on which the programs are based. Special extension courses are springing up to provide the curious with additional guidance. And, besides, is Shakespeare any less accessible than the televised operas that have been so enthusiastically received? Rather the other way around, I should think.
The next BBC offering lacked the energy of Wise's "Julius Caesar" or its immediacy, fortuitously reinforced by nightly news reports of tumultuous revolutionary upheaval in Tehran. For "As You Like It," the forest took over, and after an hour I tuned out. Better to have the rage against directorial perversity than to doze off. And this one put me to sleep.
The production came across as inert, without any style or bouyancy, qualities of which the play has a plentifyl supply-I can still remember, long since, Katherine Hepburn's radiant Rosalind. "A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' th' forest," Jaques ecstatically reports to Duke Senior, "a motley fool!" He is describing his encounter with Touchstone.
Now, motley was the multi-colored costume, of checked or patched cloth, worn by professional jesters. More than one pair of keen eyes watching the BBC production noticed that, despite the implicit directive of the next, Touchstone wore no motley. Nor was there any real foolery in him. Touchstone being the touchstone of this play, the rest followed suit. Silvius and Phebe, who derive not from shepherd life but the artificial conventions of literary pastoral, were indistinguishable from the other country folk in the cast. Even the accomplished Pasco failed to give a satirical edge to Jacques-you would never know he was something of a comic butt. The songs, thoug, were fine, and Dave Prowse as the wrestler Charles displayed an impressive physique. He comes to. "As You Like It" by way of "Star Wars," in which he played Darth Vader. The body, that is; the voice was dubbed. Probably not a bad idea.
In a "Masterpiece Theatre" sort of production there is a ttension between Shakespeare's language, in which the imagination takes flight, and the earthbound decor. Literalness tends to take over. It was carried to an absurd length in Alvin Rakoff's "Romeo and Juliet," the chief novelty of which was the choice of an unknown, Rebecca Saire, as Juliet. Her one evident qualification is that she is 14, the age Juliet is about to turn. I shudder to think what prodigies of casting will be accomplished when they get around to the Ghost in "Hamlet."
There is no good reason why the actress playing Juliet should be her age. Juliet may be a child in years, bbut she displays a womanhs maturity, choosing her own husband despite the ferocious family feud raging around her, marrying and bedding her man, and electring to die rather than join a convent when her beloved is dead. Saire showed pluck, and no doubt she is precocious; but she gave a child's reading of the part-it was done by rote, without passion and without lyricism. Nor did Ryecart, considerably older (the text doesn't specify his age), bring any exaltation to Romeo.
The fight scene, when the play suddenly erupts into violence, with two men dead and Romeo banished, was interminably and clumsily strung out in a tacky studio-Renaissance piazza, complete with fountain. The Chorus refers to the two hours' playing time of the tragedy. This production lasted closer to three. It seemed it.
Still, not a dead loss, Gielgud was his usual splendid self in the bit part of the Chorus, alone worth the price of free admission. Michael Hordern made more than the most of old Capulet. And it was a pleasure to have the Nurse played by Celia Johnson, who I had last seen so many years back in a railroad station in "Brief Encounter."
In truth, all of these productions had some attractions, and "Julius Caesar" many. Still, that isn't good enough. When it comes to the supreme poet-playwright in the language, we should make the most passionate demands for excellence.I can't imagine that any of the Shakespeare productions so far this season will change anybody's life.
Can a production change somebody's life? Well, it happened to me. Around 35 years ago, when I was a teen-ager in New York, I took my date to the first professional Shakespeare either of us had ever experienced. It was Margaret Webstter's "Othello," and I can remember most of the details as vividly as though the performance took place last night. There was Paul Robeson, with his noble bronze torso and his wonderfully deep, melodious voice, and his agony when he put out the light before putting out Desdemona's light of life. And the young actor who played Iago, weaving hisevil spell as the spider weaves his web! He chilled, but he also fascinated. We had never heard of him before, but we'd be hearing more of him, I thought then. He was Jose Ferrer. That night I found a vocation (although I didn't know it yet), and also a wife.
This of course happened in the theater, which has a different chemistry from TV or film. But I can still recall the impression made by Franco Zeffirelli's movie of "Romeo and Juliet" on young audiences. Some went to see it over and over. Just last Christmas in London I saw a television "Macbeth" that bowled over just about everybody who watched. This was Trevor Nunn's Royal Shakespeare Company production, with a hodgepodge of costumes and some wooden crates for props. But, with Ian McKellen in the title part and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth giving impassioned performances, the play took off, accomplishing a small but reverberating miracle. I hope that audiences here get a chance to see it, although the Nunn "Macbeth" was not part of the BBC Barbathon but independently made for the rival British commercial network. There is something to be said for competition in the arts as well as in other shperes.
I'm also hoping that the BBC will climb out of the middle of the road, where the well-worn ruts lie, and take some bold imaginative risks. They have going for them the breathtaking sweep of their concept of doing all of Shakespeare, even "Pericles" and Timon of Athens," which very few have ever seen. The talent is there, and the greatest challenges still remain ahead. If-as one devoutly prays-there are to be triumphs, they are not likely to come without dangerous gambles. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption; Picture, Scene from "Julius Caesar."