Saturday, 22 November 2014

Wuthering Heights - David Skynner - 1998

Emily Bronte’s classic Gothic romance has been adapted for the screen more times than is really necessary and so every new version must naturally work harder to rise above the pack. Sadly however this ITV version has little to make it stand out. Orla Brady and Robert Cavanah make a striking pair as doomed lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe but they never find much to work with beneath her selfishness and his obsession and neither is able to find the depths of romantic passion that Bronte captured on the page and so the audience is left with little more than people being unpleasant to each other for two hours. Brady instinctively finds Cathy’s flightiness but there is no warmth underneath and so it is hard to be sympathetic at her absolute incomprehension at the hurt she’s caused. Cavanah does brooding very well but the only way he finds to take it is intense and shouty which quickly becomes wearing when Heathcliffe does little but behave horrifically to everyone around him. Director David Skynner gets in some nice shots of the moors and makes a good contrast between the rundown muddy Wuthering Heights and the blandly elegant Thorley Grange but never quite manages to capture the story’s epic scope on a TV budget. However this version is unique in one respect in that it carries on after the romance has been cut off and follows Bronte’s overall story arc in order to discover the aftereffects on the next generation. This doesn’t entirely work in practice as the audience is fed up by now of Heathcliffe’s self-pity and so it can be a struggle to push on through but it does mean that after all the misery and death the audience is eventually granted a small ray of sunshine and can at least take away Bronte’s final message of hope. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Romeo and Juliet - Joan Kemp-Welch - 1976

Romeo and Juliet, the greatest love story the world has ever known has been produced on stage and screen more times than anyone can count but there has possibly never been a more crushingly dull and unimaginative version than this eight-part TV serialisation. Shot entirely on cheap looking cardboard Renaissance sets and lit with the sort of horribly flat studio lighting that ruined so much TV drama of this era, Shakespeare’s play is presented in its complete uncut form but without any of the passion, drama or chemistry that has endeared the story to millions. Clive Swift does capture some of the tender fatherly compassion of Friar Laurence and there is an enjoyable irony in watching Patsy Byrne, who would go on to famously play Nursie in Blackadder, deliver a similar performance as Juliet’s Nurse but aside from these two the cast spectacularly fails to engage with the characters and the text. Christopher Neame (at least ten years too old to play the teenage Romeo) can at least play some of the emotions the story demands (although never more than one at the same time) but he never engages with any of the subtleties of Romeo’s speeches or makes any connection with any of the characters around him, a drastic flaw in a romantic drama. Ann Hasson, making her screen debut as Juliet, is even worse, delivering every single line in a high-pitched breathy voice that is appropriately childish but rapidly becomes annoying when she proves to be incapable of finding any of the character’s emotional range or depth and so every scene that she is in quickly becomes tiresome. Its rare to find a Shakespearean adaptation without at least some edits but when the actors rush through the lines making no effort to give them more than the most superficial expression, then the faith in the text is wasted and all that this will achieve is to put people off one of the greatest stories from the greatest writer who has ever lived. 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Macbeth - Philip Casson - 1978

Trevor Nunn’s production of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976 was rightly regarded as a landmark, winning awards for the performances of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the leading roles, so to bring it to a wider audience Nunn moved the black box he created for The Other Place in Stratford into a TV studio and brought some of Shakespeare’s darkest characters right into our homes. In an effort to recreate the intimacy between characters and audience that Nunn achieved in the theatre, TV director Philip Casson pushes his cameras in close wherever possible to catch every moment of intensity and successfully captures every detail of every performance but since the whole play is set in an entirely black space this can prove to be a challenging watch at times as there is no visual reference beyond the actors and their mostly black costumes. This is largely down to different perceptions of the different mediums however, after about half an hour the dark ambiguous atmosphere that Nunn was trying to create on stage begins to seep in and the performances come to the fore. McKellen and Dench make Macbeth and his Lady a striking and surprisingly cruel couple, he viciously calculating from the moment he senses power and she coldly driven to the extent that all other emotion is pushed aside by her single-minded ambition. McKellen never quite finds the underlying uncertainty that haunts Macbeth, particularly in his soliloquy debating Duncan’s death, but the greater intensity makes the later tip over into tyranny and madness all the more frightening and the production eventually fascinating despite the visual limitations.  Nunn developed the theatre-TV adaptation idea, creating simple but effective sets for his later productions of Othello and The Merchant of Venice that made them more engaging, but this Macbeth is still worth attempting, not just as a record of an old stage production, but as a notably dark look into the psyche of two of Shakespeare’s most famous characters.