Shakespeare Uncovered

January 30, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered Returns with Six New Films Telling the Stories Behind Shakespeare’s Greatest Plays, Friday, January 30 at 9 p.m. on PBS

 Hugh Bonneville, Christopher Plummer, Morgan Freeman, David Harewood, Kim Cattrall, and Joseph Fiennes, are hosts

Shakespeare Uncovered continues with a second season on PBS, beginning Friday, January 30 at 9 p.m. (check local listings) and continuing the following two successive Fridays. Like the first series, the second installment of Shakespeare Uncovered combines history, biography, iconic performances, new analysis, and the personal passions of its celebrated hosts – Hugh Bonneville, Kim Cattrall, Joseph Fiennes, Morgan Freeman, David Harewood, and Christopher Plummer – to tell the stories behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

The first season of this ambitious project explored Macbeth, the comedies Twelfth Night and As You Like ItRichard IIHenry IV and Henry VHamlet and The Tempest, and was met with wide acclaim in both the U.K. and U.S. The Wall Street Journal declared that “(if) the marvelous ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ had been around when all of us were first introduced to the Bard, the world might be a better place, or at least a happier one.”

The new season investigates A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King LearAntony and Cleopatra,Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Taming of the Shrew.  As before, the broadcasts will be accompanied by a rich Web site and community outreach.

Produced by Blakeway Productions, 116 Films and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET in association with PBS, Sky Arts and Shakespeare’s Globe, each episode reveals the extraordinary world and works of William Shakespeare and the still-potent impact his plays have today. The films combine interviews with actors, directors and scholars, along with visits to key locations, clips from some of the most-celebrated film and television adaptations, and illustrative excerpts from the plays staged specially for the series at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Each of our six hosts has a personal connection with the play they present.  Christopher Plummer is one of the great Lears of our time; Kim Cattrall has played Cleopatra twice on the English stage, and Morgan Freeman has taken on The Taming of the Shrew’s Petruchio at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park; Joseph Fiennes portrayed Shakespeare playing Romeo in the Academy Award-winning movie blockbuster Shakespeare in Love; and Hugh Bonneville began his career as an understudy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  David Harewood was an acclaimed Othello at London’s National Theatre– the first black actor to play the role there (and will be familiar toHomeland fans as CIA director David Estes and, currently, as Sam Saperstein on Selfie).

Behind every Shakespeare play there is a story.  Shakespeare Uncovered reveals not just the elements in the play, but the history of the play itself.  What sparked the creation of each of these works?  Where did Shakespeare get his plots, and what new forms of theater did he forge?  What cultural, political and religious factors influenced his writing?  How have the plays been staged and interpreted from Shakespeare’s time to now?  Why at different times has each play been so popular – or ignored?  And finally, why has this body of work endured so thoroughly?  What, in the end, makes Shakespeare so great?

The six episodes will air as follows:

Friday, January 30, 2015

9 p.m.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Hugh Bonneville

Bonneville started his career at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, understudying Ralph Fiennes as Lysander, one of the four lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  He and Fiennes meet up again to try to untangle the extraordinary plot of one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays, a great comedy of love and enchantment.

Bonneville goes to see the play – on Midsummer’s Night – at the Globe Theatre and talks to the Globe’s Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole about its delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, the natural and the supernatural.  It is thought the play might have been performed as part of a wedding celebration, and the Globe actors try some of the scenes in the stately ruins of Copped Hall right next to the site of the original structure which may have been the play’s original performance venue.

At one point of the Dream, Shakespeare has fun with his own great romantic tragedy.  The play’s final scene, in which Bottom and his fellow mechanicals perform a dreadfully bad version of aRomeo & Juliet-like story, is one of the best-loved scenes in all of Shakespeare.  Hugh meets up with actor David Walliams, who is about to play Bottom, and looks back on James Cagney’s performance in the 1935 film.

We see clips from the landmark Peter Brook production and the BBC’s 1980 production with Helen Mirren as Titania, and hear from director Julie Taymor, who recently staged a vivid production at the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn (starring David Harewood).  In the deserted Globe Theatre, Bonneville muses on the play’s enduring appeal.

10 p.m.

“King Lear” with Christopher Plummer

King Lear is universally acknowledged as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic roles. Plummer has played the role under the direction of Sir Jonathan Miller (who, we discover, has directed it six times).

Lear was, in fact, a real English king, who lived 800 years before Christ.  Shakespeare’s premise of Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters and, in the process, disinheriting his favorite is, for the most part, supposedly true.  It is included in the Chronicles of English History, which Shakespeare often used as source material.  The historic story has a happy ending, but Shakespeare gave his theatrical interpretation a dreadful dénouement that has been shocking audiences for 400 years.

Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale share their insights into this often-difficult character.  And Plummer examines what inspired Shakespeare to write a play about a kingdom divided – at a delicate moment when a new King (James) from Scotland was trying to create what has become the “united kingdom.”

We learn how the storm scenes might have been produced at Shakespeare’s own theater, and how they represent the storm going on in Lear’s mind.  The pain he endures is so intense that Shakespeare’s version of the story was soon rewritten with a happy ending; at the Globe, we see this alternate ending acted out.  Then we return to the real play and its heart-breaking tragedy of old age. One of Shakespeare’s later plays, its ending may reflect something of his own mature cynicism. The powers of good fail and the gods do not prevent the deaths of Lear and Cordelia.  But Plummer finds that beneath the cosmic emptiness, the possibility of love survives.

Friday, February 6, 2015

9 p.m.

“The Taming of the Shrew” with Morgan Freeman

Freeman first discovered Shakespeare in school in Mississippi.  He went on to play the hero of this play – Petruchio – in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production in New York, set in the Wild West.   Freeman notes this play has set the template for all of the battle-of-the-sexes comedies that have followed; many a romantic comedy has The Taming of the Shrew running through its veins.

It’s a love story between two unlikely characters. The Shrew is Katherine, a woman who is bitter, viperish, wild – or simply not prepared to accept the conventions of her time – and thus “unmarriageable.”  Petruchio is after a wife, and the wealthier the better.  We see some Petruchios who took on the “taming” – including Richard Burton, John Cleese and Raul Julia – and such famous Kates as Elizabeth Taylor, Fiona Shaw, Sinead Cusack and Meryl Streep.  Freeman reunites with his own Kate, Tracey Ullman.  Julia Stiles, star of the 1999 teen comedy adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You, reflects on this contemporary version.  And the Royal Shakespeare Company takes a version of the play to a school near where Shakespeare grew up, where viewers observe what children make of this very adult piece.

For many, this play is uncomfortable to watch.  It was one of Shakespeare’s very first plays and may seem too brutal for modern audiences.  It ends with a speech about how women should obey their men.  But is this the sexist propaganda that it first appears – or is there something more complicated (and interesting) going on?  Freeman concludes that beneath the apparent cruelty is a message about equality in relationships.  And we hear observations from many women who also admire the play, including pioneering feminist Germaine Greer (who appears as an expert commentator in several episodes).

10 p.m.

“Othello” with David Harewood

Astonishingly, David Harewood was the first black actor to play the great Moorish Venetian general Othello at London’s National Theatre, triumphantly taking on the role—but not until 1997.  Now he returns to the play to discover how the centuries have changed our views of it.

Harewood learns about the Moorish ambassador who visited the court of Queen Elizabeth I and may have inspired Shakespeare. He meets the National Theatre’s latest Othello, Adrian Lester, who has also starred in a play about Ira Aldridge, the 19th-century American actor who was the first black man ever to play the role in England; the reviews were shockingly racist.  And he watches different Othellos on film, including Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed if controversial “blacked-up” version from the 1960s.

Othello is actually a play dominated not by race, but by love and a great villain – Iago.  A forensic psychiatrist helps to analyze this extraordinary psychopath and how he manipulates Othello by persuading him that his young wife is having an affair.  Harewood meets Simon Russell Beale, who played Iago to his Othello, and they re-examine the lethal relationship.  Imogen Stubbs and Sir Ian McKellen, who starred in Trevor Nunn’s production; Julia Stiles, whose movie O was a modern take on the play; and Sir Patrick Stewart, who played Othello in a “color-reversed” production, also reflect on their characters.

Friday, February 13, 2015

9 p.m.

“Antony & Cleopatra” with Kim Cattrall

Cattrall has played Cleopatra twice.  Now she explores the real character of the great Queen of Egypt, and travels to Rome, ironically Marc Antony’s city, in her quest to find out more about the historical Cleopatra.  She also meets with her director, Dame Janet Suzman, who herself made an iconic Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973. Together they begin to uncover the truth behind this astonishing middle-aged love story.  Antony and Cleopatra are no lovesick juveniles; they are mature, heroic – real – political figures. As such they were quite dangerous roles to write, let alone to play.

Cattrall watches different Cleopatras, meets Harriet Walter and Vanessa Redgrave (who have also played the role) and joins actors rehearsing the play at the Globe. Cleopatra is one of the greatest and largest of all Shakespeare’s female roles, and must have required a boy actor of extraordinary skill.  We look at the source Shakespeare used and how closely he copied the language of a Roman historian to describe Cleopatra’s beauty; today he might be at risk for plagiarism. But comparing one of the most famous speeches in the play with its source, line by line, reveals the power of Shakespeare’s poetry.

The episode tracks Marc Antony’s first appearance in Shakespeare, as a young and powerful figure in Julius Caesar.  Richard Johnson and Patrick Stewart discuss playing Cleopatra’s now-aging lover in the later play.

The conflict between the public and private lives of these two historic figures was bound to end in tragedy.  They fail to defeat or escape their enemies.  As in Romeo and Juliet, both die by their own hands.  In the Globe’s candlelit indoor theatre – a version of the playhouse where this play was once performed – Cattrall watches the actors play out Cleopatra’s last moments.

10 p.m.

“Romeo and Juliet” with Joseph Fiennes

Fiennes has a unique perspective on Romeo and Juliet. He played Shakespeare – both writing and performing as Romeo – in the film Shakespeare in Love.  Now he wants to examine why it remains the most-performed of all Shakespeare plays.

Fiennes takes us back to the source – an Italian story translated into English when Shakespeare was a boy.  Shakespeare adapted and dramatized the Italian poem, and other writers have been adapting him for centuries ever since. At London’s Royal Ballet, viewers see the play in a famous dance interpretation, and later Stephen Sondheim discusses adapting for the Broadway musical theater as West Side Story.  Fiennes visits adult night classes at a South London school where the participants can see their own lives reflected in the play.

Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, who recently played the immortal lovers on Broadway in 2013, discuss the continuing power of the play and its poetry.  And Fiennes looks at noted film adaptations, ranging from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Italian masterpiece to Baz Luhrman’s contemporary re-imagining.  We attend the premiere of a new film adaptation, this time rewritten by Julian Fellowes.  Back at the Globe, we watch as the company rehearses a scene with a young man very effectively playing Juliet – just as would have been done in Shakespeare’s time.

The ending of this play is so tragic that for years rewritten versions dominated the stage. Yet Fiennes sees a more hopeful message coming from the tragic ending, one about the eternal power of love.

Richard Denton and Nicola Stockley are series producers for Shakespeare Uncovered, with Fiona Stourton as executive producer for Blakeway Productions; for THIRTEEN, Bill O’Donnell is series producer, with Stephen Segaller and David Horn as executive producers.

Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Major funding is also provided by Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, and PBS.

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Station: PBS, check local listings