The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)

By popular request, following my much-enjoyed Blake’s 7 reviews, a series of reviews of every single Shakespeare play produced by the BBC during their 1978-1985 ‘Bardathon’ released on this lovely box set here which I can’t recommend too highly, it really is the dog’s bodkin.

These reviews date from late 2005 and 2006 and I’ll be posting them in the same order I wrote them back then (informally, just for friends). Any opinions contained herein are automatically devalued on account of having been expressed by yours truly. They start off fairly short and get longer...

Kicking things off with the first entry, and the introduction I wrote back in 2005:

Well, I thought I'd go highbrow. And thoughts popped into my head whilst watching, so I thought I'd share. Maybe I should do a weblog instead, but I don't particularly want to.

Anyway, this is me, working my way through the BBC Shakespeares. In a fairly random order. I did look into trying to watch them in the order they were written but, rather like The Prisoner, nobody seems quite sure what the correct order is. Plus that would lead to great frustration when I had to miss out Love's Labours' Won and sit through the telesnap reconstruction of Cardenio. And the BBC didn't do Edward III, Sir Thomas More or The Two Noble Kinsmen because, in one of those peculiar twists of chronology, they weren't written by Shakespeare until the 1980s.

Henry VI Part One

Watched this last night. I thought it would be heavy going because, let's face it, it has a really boring title. I expect it was the rule or something that the plays had to be named after the Kings, because they were the most important people in it, but really this play isn't about him at all - he doesn't even turn up until halfway through. Instead it's about England being at war with the French - a plot I suspect may crop up rather a lot - and in particular a heroic, dashing chap called Talbot versus the French dauphin (not a sea mammal, but some sort of mini-monarch) and his bint on the side, Joan of Arc. So really it should be called Talbot! or Joan of Arc! or something.

Joan of Arc is played by Brenda Blethyn. I don't think she entirely nails the role, but it's a great, sexy character. She is portrayed, basically, as a bit of a nutter. She's not a witch, but instead gets her way by basically giving the dolphin blow-jobs all the time. That is my theory, she is after all French and it explains why he has a stupid grin on his face all the time and why she can still be a virgin when she's SPOILER burnt at the stake. She goes completely bonkers at the end, which is a shame, and doesn't quite join up with how the character is presented in the earlier scenes. Could have done with some foreshadowing.

This is one of the earliest plays, though opinion seems divided on whether it was the first, or was even written as a prequel to Henry VI Part Two and Henry VI Part Three. That would sort-of make sense because it sets up some plotlines - the war of the Roses - which run on all the way to Richard III. This means there are several scenes where York and Somerset (not sure of my history but in the play it's definitely Somerset) argue over some actual, literal roses. Somerset is basically a complete tosser whilst York is merely a pompous arse. This also leads to several lines which are, like, well, the precognition lines you find in cheap biopics. Like in say a biopic about the Beatles you just know the young Paul McCartney is going to, at some point, say something like 'John, I wish you would just let it be, we've been working eight days a week and I should be sleeping like a log...' There's a lot of portentous 'ooh, this is setting up the shit that will hit the fan later on' stuff. Kind of like in Revenge of the Sith, but with a measure of taste and subtlety.

You can tell it's an early play because each scene ends with a couplet, which, like the slowing-down bit at the end of baroque toe-tapper, lets the audience know this would be good point to clap, pop in another wine mug and rearrange the buttocks.

Richard III

Saw this a couple of weeks ago, but I'd seen it before at the National with Robert Lindsay. [Joke about how we used to go to the theatre a lot together removed]. Anyway, this is basically one of the comedies, as it is all about Richard III taking the piss. He really does. He kills the king, and then persuades his widow to marry him, and then he laughs about it in an aside afterwards. And then it is just a succession of him using people to get what he wants, until they outlive their usefulness and he has them killed. It's kind of like 24 in that respect - these henchmen never clock a thing, they always think that even if all the other henchman have been betrayed and killed, it could never happen to them. And then before they know it, their chair has tilted backwards and they're in the shark tank.

Still an early play this, because Richard III's character is, whilst very funny, he doesn't really have any proper motivation except, well, he's bad. He's not quite as bad as Aaron in Titus Andronicus but he is evil, because, well, he's ugly and disabled and well that will have to do for now. What I like about him, though, is that the play is all about him getting one over on 'conscience', going on about how he hasn't got one, he doesn't care, and frankly, my dear, I don't give a shit. And then it all comes back to haunt him, literally. Which actually doesn't feel like a cop-out, because it's been there throughout - there's a terribly super scene earlier on with two assassins setting up the themes of the play. Two rather dithery assassins who, being completely crap, wake up their target and talk to him for a bit before killing him. They might as well have baked him a pie while they were at it.

Anyway, lots of wailing and weeping from Richard's victims, but to be honest you don't have much sympathy for them because they are all so feckless and gullible and Richard is so charming. Apparently Patsy Kensit was in this one but I didn't spot her.

The Comedy Of Errors

Now this really is supposed to be a comedy. And, you know, it more or less works, because most of the jokes aren't based around wordplay or topical gags, but based around the story. Which is, it has to be said, mind-bogglingly implausible, involving as it does two sets of identical twins, a shipwreck, a quite extraordinary amount of coincidence and some plot holes the size of Wales*. That said, all of the coincidences are in the set-up, and after that it runs beautifully, as a simple but pleasing farce of the Brian Rix variety, as people run in and out of doors, sometimes without their trousers.

Quite astonishingly, though, some of the wordplay jokes do stand up, and I don't mean in a just-for-the-English-teachers-in-the-audience type way. There's a bit where one of the twins is describing this incredibly fat woman who has come onto him, thinking him to be her boyfriend. Anyway, this leads on to a discussion about this woman was so round she could be a globe - and he could see her France, and her Spain, but thankfully not her Netherlands. Maybe you had to be there, but it made me giggle. I've been under a lot of stress lately.

The cast for this one included Ingrid Pitt as a courtesan - thank goodness I had the subtitles switched on or I wouldn't have had a f*cking clue what she was on about. I mean, yes, she may have really big REDACTEDS but she can't act, she really can't. And, yes, I do have the subtitles switched on because one of the problems with all these Shakespeares is that sometimes the diction is so off you lose the sense of the line. And also because in these BBC adaptations sometimes the boom microphone is on the other side of the studio, or is even in a cab heading for the Pink Pussycat, Soho.

The other difficulty with these plays is the names. Particularly in the history ones, everyone has about four or five different names - their first name, their nickname, their surname, whatever county they are named after, and sometimes a couple of animals as well. And the characters hardly ever refer to each other by their names, so it takes ages to work out who anyone is - and also, bear in mind, when they do use names they might not be talking about who they're talking to, but might be referring to themself in the third person, or talking about someone from ancient myth who isn't even in the bloody play. I suspect in Shakespeare's time all of the actor's costumes and wigs made it clear who they were supposed to be, through heraldry. Or maybe f*ck-off big name badges.

Anyway, this adaption also features Roger Daltrey, star of credit card adverts and SDP party political broadcasts, as both the Dromios. Being wankey, this TV adaption uses split-screen so that the same actor can play both Dromio twins, and another guy can play both the Antipholus twins. This doesn't come off, because unfortunately they are played in a pretty similar way, when really you need one Dromio and Antipholus to be posh, well-to-do citizens of Ephesus, and the other two to be country bumpkins, or American tourists.

* One of the universal units of measurement, along with London buses, Olympic-sized swimming pools and, in Doctor Who novelisations, medium-sized restaurants.

Titus Andronicus

Another early one this. It's pretty bleak, and this time the villain - Aaron - is evil because he is black. And he's shagging the queen, Tamora, who is married to the emperor Saturninus, who frames Timon's sons for the murder of the emperor's brother and has them executed, and who gets her own sons - who had killed the emperor's brother - to rape Timon's daughter, and chop off her tongue and arms. Timon also chops off his hand, because - for no readily explicable reason - he trusts Aaron to free his sons. Anyway, there's a lot of shouting, a vast amount of bleeding, and eventually Tamora gets fed her own sons which have been baked into a big pie. Then everybody who is still alive kills each other until there’s a big pile of bodies on the ground. It's like something written by Eric Saward. Fast, funny, violent, but ultimately leaving you feeling slightly nauseous.

Julius Caesar

I have to say though, of the five I've sat through so far, this one impressed me the most. Unfortunately I studied it for A-level which meant I was prejudiced against it, because I loathed and abhored the mindless and superficial way the plays were criticised and discussed (unlike in this blog which is super-insightful). But you know what I mean, it's about dissecting literature in terms of historical context and authorial autobiography which, whilst I'm sure is an aspect of the work, does a huge disservice to what the author's role in the proceedings is, which is Making Stuff Up In His Head. I always feel that people like Dickens are never given enough credit for making stuff up - the critical biographies tend to go 'well, we haven't yet found a real-life source for this character or incident, but there must be one...' and I think, 'give the writer some credit for using his bloody imagination for f*ck's sake'. Not everything can be broken down into influences.

Anyway, railing against the tenants of literary criticism aside, this is a f*cking A play. Unlike Titus, Richard III and Henry VI (1), there are no bad guys, just two sets of good guys who unfortunately don't quite get on. Which is, y’know, more of a tragedy, best intentions leading to f*ck-up and all that being more tragic than a guy in a cape throwing the spanner in the works just for the hell of it. So anyway, this play isn't really about Julius Caesar - played by Charles Gray, and I'm sorry but you are best known for the instructional video for the Timewarp - but about the relationship between Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius is played by David Collings, and at one point he is very flighty. Now, based on his work in Doctor Who and Sapphire & Steel, I'd always thought he was a pretty decent actor, but in this he is f*cking fantastic. And the story is about Cassius wanting to push Brutus forward - kind of like a Mandelson to his Tony Blair, or a Sebastian to his Anthony Head - only for them to fall out when the going gets tough, but then reconcile in adversity. I thought it was actually pretty strong, moving stuff, all about loyalty in politics and man stuff.

Unfortunately I don't think Keith Mitchell quite nails Anthony's big speech. I dimly recall writing an essay about the speech, analysing what it does, and I just feel there needs to be a more sarcastic emphasis on 'But Brutus is an honourable man', because what the speech is about is twisting the word 'honourable' into a pejorative term. The other problem with this speech - which is otherwise f*cking magnificent, let me add - is that the scene relies on the fact that the public of Rome are all absolutely cretins with the memory of a goldfish. Which, I know, may be true in real life as well, but in a play it looks implausible.

Anyway, I can't leave Julius Caesar without a mention of my favourite bit, which is the angry mob killing the poet Cenna, 'tear him for his bad verses'. A very funny scene, what Radio Times listings writers would no doubt call 'darkly comic' or somesuch.

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