Here and there – Shakespeare on film – a first XI


Someone suggested that I do a note on my favourite films of Shakespeare – recognising that the list today might change radically tomorrow.  Here then is today’s first XI – in alphabetical order.

All’s Well that Ends Well is the only play by this author I have not seen on stage.  The 1981 BBC version features two of my favourite actors, and not just in Shakespeare – Ian Charleson and Michael Hordern.  Bertram is a rotten role, but Charleson was so good.  Hordern for me is like Gielgud – they both look like they were born to play Shakespeare.  Hordern oozes Lafew.  There is a wonderful scene – Act V scene ii – where Parolles is wretched and roughly dealt with by the Clown, and Lafew takes him under his wing.  It is pure magic that can’t be taught.  No wonder Hordern terrified Richard Burton as a scene stealer.

The 1984 BBC Coriolanus has a spellbinding performance from Alan Howard in the lead.  He makes no effort to hide his contempt of the mob, and this author knew how to show politics in the gutter.  The sets the BBC employed are perfect for this plot.  Irene Worth is the mother-in-law from hell.  Riveting political drama that is relevant to our time.

I have never understood the fuss about Citizen Kane, but it is hard to avoid the word genius with Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight of 1965.  The film draws on all the Falstaff plays – except Merry Wives.  Somehow it manages to convey the essence of the author’s most famous character.  Gielgud plays the king, and Norman Rodwell is brilliant as a restless young prince wondering if he might be soulless. He was his father’s son.  (It was a bit rich for the producers to give second billing to the late Jean Moreau for Doll – she has about four lines.)

It’s hard to believe that Branagh’s Hamlet came out more than twenty years ago – in 1996.  I saw it four times at the Astor in packed houses.  Some of these dream cast jobs can get wearisome but not this one.  The late Richard Briers was a Branagh favourite and another professional scene stealer.  Rufus Sewell was perfect for Horatio – the kind of guy who would give you a very worrying night if he came to take out your daughter.  The late Robin Williams aired his magic as the courtier, and Gerard Depardieu shows what a wonderful screen presence he has as he stares down Richard Briers with the least lines in the play.

Branagh’s Henry V (1989) got flogged to death in my house when a daughter wrote a ballet to the music.  Branagh’s enthusiasm is infectious.  He broke off with Emma Thompson, but she is very sexy here – and backed up by the great Geraldine McEwan.  Ian Holm nearly steals the show as Fluellen, he having played the lead in the Harper Collins audio.  You also get the bonus of Brian Blessed as Exeter and Richard Briers as Bardolph. The other great scene stealer is Mountjoy, the French Herald.  Blessed is wonderful in confronting the French, and Scofield shows what a great actor he was.  (I’m sure Brian Blessed was in Z Cars and that Sergeant Barlow called him ‘a teddy boy in uniform’: that English frankness was a real revelation to me.)

The whole cast of the BBC Henry VIII (1979) is strong – led by John Stride and Claire Bloom – but Timothy West is splendid as the doomed Cardinal Wolsey – the very definition of a professional politician.  The phrase ‘spin doctor’ could have been coined for this great play.  The scene where the plot to unseat the Archbishop is foiled is unforgettable high politics.

When Brando did Julius Caesar in 1953, I was about eight.  This film helped introduce my girls to Shakespeare: ‘Golly, Dad, who’s that hunk?’  This is another wonderful political plot.  Brando is amazing in the big speech, but we tend to forget the dramatic power of the next two scenes.  Shakespeare wrote a lot about how easy it is to inflame the mob.  He would be horrified but not surprised by seeing the mob in action today.

Fantasy and slapstick are hard to put on the screen, but the 1998 Hollywood Midsummer Night’s Dream gives it a real shot.  Kevin Kline and the director, and clips from opera, make Bottom an intriguing star, but David Strathairn and Sophie Marceau are just right as royalty – and there is no doubt that Michelle Pfeiffer was Hollywood royalty.

The Branagh Much Ado about Nothing of 1994 has one of the most invigorating starts of a movie.  Emma Thompson is deadly as Beatrice, but Michael Keaton nearly runs off with show in the comic parts.

It would be churlish to skip Richard Burton and his then wife Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 Taming of the Shrew directed by the great film and opera director, Franco Zeffirelli.  The screen is painted with something close to an Old Master level, and Michael Hordern as the unfortunate dad again shows his lethal scene stealing.

When I saw Julie Taymor’s debut as feature film director in Titus in 1999 at the cinema, on each occasion I could feel and hear the audience shift uneasily at the end when Anthony Hopkins appears on the screen ‘dressed as a cook’ – which I think is the stage direction.  This is for obvious reasons a difficult play to put on but I thought then and I think now that this production was a complete and gutsy success.  It is brilliantly set and choreographed.  Geraldine McEwen has a small part that finds the wrong end of a billiard cue.  While the sources are Roman, this film comes across as the archetypal Greek tragedy of a cursed house.  Hopkins is perfect as the square-jawed servant of public duty. Jessica Lange still conveys that sexy fatality.  As the play is developed in the film, it could be at the root of the great Westerns.  Most of the show is about how bad the bad guys are, so that when their dispatch comes at the end, the sense of relief is complete.  This is the revenge show of all revenge shows.  The film is also a demolition job on the notion that ancient Rome was civilised.

Well, there’s my first XI for today.  Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter were both terrific in Twelfth Night of 1996, but the slapstick didn’t quite come off, and some of the boys got worried when they thought that Ms Stubbs – who I would have given an arm and a leg to see play the Jailer’s Daughter – looked sexiest when dressed as a copper and with a moustache.  That kind of thing may be unsettling, but she carried it off with her customary trade craft.

Well, whatever else may be said, we are not denied great offerings – and that’s without going to the Globe and other live productions.

Here and there – The Wars of the Roses on the BBC


In 1964, the year of the Demons’ last flag, the BBC made a televised recording called The Wars of the Roses.  It consisted of a heavily edited version of four plays: Henry VI Parts I, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  The editing didn’t involve just cutting – new dialogue was added.  You can if you like try to spot the additions.  I couldn’t be bothered (and I suspect that my ear may be as dodgy as my palate).  The issue may in one sense be sterile, since it is unlikely that anyone will chance their arms by putting on the whole of the Henry VI trilogy in this country – they don’t try it often in England.  We get either an abridgement, or nothing.

This TV show was a huge undertaking.  The set was both massive and novel, and the cast was of the kind called ‘stellar’ in the popular press, although the producers were prepared to chance their arms.  The show was recorded over eight weeks with many stars who had been involved in a recent Stratford production of the four plays.

One object of the production was to demonstrate the relevance of many themes of the plays to modern politics.  The director, Peter Hall, said:

I became more and more fascinated by the contortions of politicians, and by the corrupting seductions experienced by anybody who wields power.  

The RSC issued a three CD set of the trilogy in 2016.  The show was shot in black and white and its grainy appearance lacks the definition of High Noon, but it is a great and historical production.

Each of the three parts is punishingly long – far too long to be taken in one hit in comfort.  When the BBC replayed the series, they did so in eleven parts.  The truth is that all four of these plays are too long, at least for Australian audiences.  Many years ago, I saw the RSC do the Full Monty on Richard III at the Barbican, and it was an ordeal for back and bum of Wagnerian dimensions

Before watching the series, you may wish to look at the supplement that has interviews with two surviving stars – David Warner (Henry VI) and Janet Suzman (Joan of Arc and Lady Anne).  Both would go on to wonderful careers, but each was hesitant at this stage, and their selection carried risk.  Warner was offered his role after three auditions.  He said he couldn’t believe it, and that he spent the first few days apologising for his selection.  It was a great choice.  His face, which is on the cover, was made to express the pain and indecision of a pious disaster.  Of his part, Kenneth Tynan would say ‘I have seen nothing more Christ-like in modern theatre.’  Either the critic had a queer view of Christ, or he missed that part where this idle fop disinherited his son so that he could hold on to power for a few years more.  (And I am a Tynan fan.)

When offered the role of Joan la Pucelle, Suzman asked who was she?  ‘Joan of Arc, you bloody idiot.’  Then she turned up on the set, and all ‘the big guns were there.’  I’m not personally familiar with how the hierarchy in the theatre manifests itself to relative novices, but I imagine you could get the kind of snakiness you may find among some barristers and test cricketers – that is, naked bitchiness.  Suzman says the editing was a corrective to a ‘biblical’ view of Shakespeare.  Her features then, and fifty years on, radiate a kind of strength – of a kind, perhaps, that the Lady Anne lacked.

One of the big guns that may have put the wind up Janet Suzman was Peggy Ashcroft.  She plays Margaret of Anjou, the queen of Henry VI, and the ‘she-wolf of France.’  She appears in every segment, and is the driving force for a lot of the action as the proud wife of an anaemic king, and the protective mother of his betrayed heir.  She starts as the young French girl who is wooed into a negotiated marriage, becomes the de facto ruler of England, and the serial killer of the enemies of her house, and ends as a savage old hag at risk of being accused of witchcraft (which they all believed in back then.)

Since the actress was fifty-six when she played this part, pulling it off would be a feat – but pull it off, she did.  Here is how a contemporary critic saw what appears to have been the original stage production.

.. the quite marvellous, fearsome performance of Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret of Anjou, who skipped on to the stage, a lightfooted, ginger, sub-deb sub-bitch at about 11.35 a.m. and was last seen, a bedraggled crone with glittering eye, rambling and cussing with undiminished fury, 11 hours later, having grown before our eyes into a vexed and contumacious queen, a battle-axe and a maniac monster of rage and cruelty.. even the stoniest gaze was momentarily lowered from this gorgon.

Peggy Ashcroft said of her part as Margaret that she was:

….a Dark Lady if ever there was one – and prototype for Cressida, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth – was Shakespeare’s first ‘heroine’ – if such she can be called… It takes four plays to make her one of the great female characters in Shakespeare – and the full-length portrait has been seen only in The Wars of the Roses cycle – but she has facets that are not touched on in any other.

Margaret’s feral growls and hideous curses could cost you some sleep.

Janet Suzman is vital and gamin, and utterly followable as Joan of Arc.  The scene where the big hitters elect to pick either a white rose (York) or a red rose (Lancaster) resembles heavy chested Harley riders.  What are they missing that makes them show of so dangerously?  In truth these magnates resemble the Mafia more than the Hell’s Angels.  And the Mafia and the feudal system both evolve out of the same disorder – the failure of central government to provide security drives people to make other arrangements.  They seek protection elsewhere.  You look after me and I will look after you.

These lords and knights have that marvellous medieval accompaniment – their ‘powers’.  Their puissance, another word much used in these times, leads others to pledge allegiance – to their liege lords.  It is I suppose the kind of thing you see in shows like House of Cards, but there is something less prosaic about ‘powers’ than poll ratings or factions or unions or think tanks or talk shows.

We are talking about chess played with extreme prejudice.  The magnates are like the knights and bishops, or even rooks, except that the rules are there to be flouted.  The concept of allegiance was at best fluid.  The followers – the powers – of the Duke of Burgundy or Lord Gloucester were as solid and reliable as the Tory ministers of Mrs Theresa May.

I will not mention all the players.  The cast includes Roy Dotrice, Brewster Mason, Eric Porter, and the others mentioned here.  The rose pickers include Donald Sinden as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and William Squire as Suffolk (the wooer and lover of Margaret).  Sinden’s voice reminds me of Drambuie.  There is something about it that makes it instantly recognizable, rather like the deflated Kevin Spacey.

When I lived in South Yarra, I could walk to and from work in the east end of Collins St, about thirty-five minutes each way, and in about four months listen to all thirty-eight plays.  (It was then that I was glad that I had seen Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida because I would not be doing so again; and Cyril Cusack’s Iago put me off Othello for life.)  I suppose I had heard A Winter’s Tale on four or five occasions, before one day, out of nowhere, on the tan, I recognized the voice of the lead – there was no doubt it was William Squire who played Hunter in nearly all the twenty or so episodes of Callan.  And in this trilogy there is also a lot of that eyebrow rolling and nasally drawled incredulity.  It is bliss for Callan fans.

Gloucester (Paul Hardwick) is the definitive politician and the unfortunate Winchester (Nicholas Selby) is played like Joel Grey in Cabaret.  Both could have walked straight out of Yes, Minister.

The Jack Cade sequence was to my mind hopelessly over the top, and too violent.  Indeed, there are many scenes of horrific violence.  We get to see what a blood feud can really look like, generation after generation.  Janet Suzman remarked on the violence, and the role of cabbages in the decapitations.  She said people were fainting all over the place.

One of my favourite scenes from this playwright is the confrontation between Queen Margaret and the Duke of York.  She taunts him about his progeny.

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

 Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?

Well, we’ll get to see this Dicky in full murderous flight in the next episode, but this French-born woman steels herself not just to extinguish her womanhood, but her humanity.  She will mock not just knighthood, but fatherhood.  She rubs the nose of York into the blood of Rutland (his son) on a handkerchief.  She says she mocks him to make him mad so that she can sing and dance.  She puts a paper crown on the head of the man who would be king and says:

Ay, marry, sir, now he looks like a king

Ay, this is he who took King Henry’s chair

And this is he was his adopted heir.

But how is it that great Plantagenet

Is crowned so soon, and broke his solemn oath?

Off with the crown, and with the crown his head!

And whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead!  


The BBC version is not for children.  Margaret by now is oozing hate, and we start to get that old Greek feeling of whole houses being cursed.  (In the McKellen film, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth gave meaning to the phrase ‘Ay me!  I see the ruin of my house’ – ‘Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre’.  She was right.)  The violence was perhaps not so surprising after the assassination of Kennedy, and the beginning of the war in Vietnam.  And the Cold War was stepping up, so mutilation by a sickle in the area of the groin may have then had different significance.  We have now been exposed to so much more horror, that this level of explicitness looks as unnecessary as it is unkind.

In the final part, we see evil made manifest in Richard III played by Ian Holm.  Richard III is a master class in the kind of stunt pulled by Peisistratus that was made whole by Mussolini and perfected by Hitler.  The part as played by Ian Holm is so threatening because it is underdone.  It’s as if the producers wanted to comment on the ‘banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in Eichmann.  (He was one of those mass murderers who went to work with mass death in his brief case.)  What we are presented with here is not motiveless malignity, but wanton evil.  Most people can get hot for sex; the world must be peopled; but some people, sadly, get hot for evil.

Ian Holm was born to act.  For this role he also brings the advantages of relative youth and shortness of size.  He said:

I played Richard very much as a cog in the historical wheel, and not as an individual character. We tried very hard to get away from the Olivier/Irving image of the great Machiavellian villain.

When Richard is confronted with his bloody past, we get the kind of apologia that Fox News reserves for Donald Trump.

Look, what is done cannot now be amended.

Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes

Which afterhours gives leisure to repent.


The scene where Richard confronts Anne is difficult, because it is revolting.  But we have been rudely reminded that quite revolting people – including racist morons – might appeal to people who don’t mind being revolted, or who just don’t care.  And we are also reminded of the difference between the power of sex appeal – that this king had none of – and the sex appeal of power.  When we say that power corrupts, it is not just the wielder who can be corrupted, but those who come within its thrall.  The regimes we least admire work on dragging people down to their level and then locking them into the regime by their complicity.

All that and more is on show here in this remarkable trilogy for the preservation of which we owe much thanks.

PS. May I add a note about Hunter? Callan worked for the British spooks.  He was dragooned into it, and to do dirty hit jobs, because they got to him in the Big House.  He has come up the hard way.  His only mate is a scruffy Cockney cab driver called Lonely.  Hunter is from the Establishment.  So is another agent, Toby Meares.  They are observing from afar Callan on a dangerous mission to meet a deadly Russian killer.  Hunter scowls – he’s good at that – when Meares expresses a moral qualm about the danger to Callan.

Well, then, what would you do if you were in my position, Meares?

Well, on reflection, I think I would do nothing, Sir.

In that case, I would applaud your reticence, Meares.

Oh, don’t applaud, Sir – that way your right hand might know what your left hand is doing.


If you watch William Squire in The Wars of the Roses – he is Buckingham at the end – you will see immediately why he was a natural for the part of Hunter – and why he continues to play a substantial part in my entertainment.  As it happens, Buckingham is one of the most vapid and watery liars the world has known.  He is the Platonic form of the kind of politician who drives the rest of us mad.

Four centuries on – Shakespeare

Tomorrow, 23 April 2016, is a big anniversary.  I wrote the following in a book called The West Awakes.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford, England and he died there.  He had a good, solid education, and then he settled down to provide for his wife and children.  His business was to write plays, mainly in verse, and to manage drama in production at theatres like the Globe, and occasionally to act in them.  He prospered in that business and he appears to have died at peace with himself.  We know little about his life.  It looks quite unremarkable – except that his thirty-eight plays and his sonnets are thought to contain literature and drama as good as anything else in the world.  He is widely seen as the greatest genius in history.  His work continues to affect people in their lives all around the world.

You will not see the work of any dramatist set out in poetry in anything like what you get with Shakespeare.  Another distinction is the range of the work.  Shakespeare appears to have been as much at home with comedy as he was with tragedy, with English history plays as with Roman history plays, or with Romances.  Neither Ibsen nor Chekhov ever wrote a comedy, and you will probably get more laughs from a tragedy of Shakespeare than you will get from most of the plays of these great two playwrights.

We are talking about different categories of drama.  There is another way in which Shakespeare covered a greater range – it is the range of subject matter, the range of humanity.  Ibsen and Chekhov tended to focus on educated people of their country and their own time.  Shakespeare ranged from the Bronze Age (Troilus and Cressida) to his equivalent of a contemporary Neighbours (The Merry Wives of Windsor), from Vienna (Measure for Measure), to Athens (Timon), Elsinore (Hamlet) and Scone (Macbeth), but most importantly, from a great king (Henry V) to the drunken, cheating, womanising insult to chivalry (Falstaff); to the dregs of Eastcheap (Bardolph and Peto), and the drunken porter (Macbeth), and the whores and madams of Vienna (Measure for Measure).  Until the great king closes a loop by hanging Bardolph after repudiating Falstaff, and even afterwards, there is no way of saying where this writer was more at home, at the top of the social pile or at the bottom.  Has any other writer ever shown so much penetration and understanding of so many facets of the human condition?

But to Shakespeare the question was whether people were entertained by his plays.  They were and they still are.  To most people what comes first is the skill of the writer as a dramatist – the way he puts his story of characters on the stage and holds our interest – the way he entertains us for the duration of the play.  Poetry is for many a bonus, for some a distraction, and for others just a nuisance.

Two themes recur in the plays of this writer: the superiority of women to men; and the inferiority of the better people to the lesser people, the anti-establishment streak.  You do not find so much of these challenges to orthodoxy or these brushes with modernity in the works of Homer, Dante or Goethe.  What we have is a persistent streak of raw rebellion.  Ibsen wanted to put a torpedo under the ark of Scandinavian society, and his two most famous plays now, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, gave voice to women in that bleak, tawdry Northern world, but does the voice of protest ring as loudly there as it did with Shakespeare?

To an uncommitted observer who comes to review these plays as a whole in performance, these two characteristics – the feeling for women and the feeling against the Establishment – are both obvious and striking.  Why are they so little remarked upon?  Part of the reason is, perhaps, that professional critics have tended to be ageing middle class academics who live off the public purse, but who do not go to the theatre enough – like Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, they read a lot and think too much – and who have a cloistered unawareness of the rough edges of humanity, being more at home with their iambic pentameters and people who speak softly and politely.

There are at least three reasons why the plays of Shakespeare still enthral audiences and enlighten readers all around the world.

The first is their intrinsic excellence as dramas and as poetry.  Shakespeare may or may not have been equalled as a poet, but he was never equalled as a dramatist.

The second is the range of his material, not just geographically or historically, or across the various genres of the plays, but across the whole range of the human experience for all kinds and levels of humanity.  It is these two factors that give the sense of timelessness and universality possessed by great art.  When you add the ways that many of the plays challenged the status quo at the time the plays were written, in ways that can still seem at least relevant if not positively modern, you can see why each generation keeps coming back to the plays and keeps taking something different from them.

The third factor follows from what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’.  Shakespeare wrote of a medieval world dominated by God and the Church.  That dominance had greatly been shaken by the time of Elizabeth I, not least because of the split in the church.  Now in England and in many of its former colonies, except the United States, God and the Church are minority interests, and the hunger for ritual and myth of the rest can be pathetic to observe.  There is only so far that Elvis Presley, the Princess of Wales, the Lions or Wallabies, or the All Blacks, or a couple of bottles of red, can go to fill the vacuum.  There are times when you can almost taste the void that is close to the heart of our communal life.

Shakespeare is part of our language, and part of the fabric of our history and intellectual life.  He is for us at least what Homer was to the Greeks.  Going to the theatre – to see Shakespeare or the opera – and drawing on our cultural history is as close as many can now get to the myth and ritual it seems that most humans crave.

The director Deborah Warner referred to the observation of Laurence Olivier that with Shakespeare we touch ‘the face of God’ and said:  ‘What Shakespeare does – whoever he was – he makes you proud to be human.’  Richard Burton said:

I wondered through the book for a long time, but no other writer hit me with quite the impact of William S.  What a stupendous God he was, he is.  What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’