E1 Entertainment // 1982 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // January 20th, 2010
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts."
-- As You Like It
We generally think of Shakespeare as playwright of love, of passion, of murder most foul, of revenge most bloody. However, Shakespeare's life and career was firmly grounded in the world of the theatre, and so it should be little surprise that much of his work evokes the world -- no, make that the life of the stage. Many of his plays hinge to some extent on acting, from Bottom and his bumbling players in A Midsummer Night's Dream to the traveling troupe whose appearance at Elsinore affords Hamlet the opportunity to catch the conscience of the king. Clearly, acting and the theatre are one of Shakespeare's major tropes; in fact, Hamlet is almost completely about people playing parts.
By 1977, Ian McKellan had already spent some twenty years performing Shakespeare, and had already made a reputation as one of the great performers of his generation. The Edinburgh Shakespeare Festival asked him to do a one-person show, and McKellan hit upon the idea of building the show around this meta aspect, combining Shakespeare with McKellan's own experiences. The performance was a hit, so much so that McKellan went on the road with the production for several years. In 1982, to commemorate the fiftieth birthday of the Folger Shakespeare Library, PBS broadcast this particular performance, filmed at the CBS Studios.
No props, no costumes, just McKellan and an empty stage. It takes but a few lines before you understand that McKellan is a true master. Moving easily between Shakespeare and his own recollections, he weaves a web of witchcraft, moving from play to play, character to character, with consummate ease: Hamlet, Polonius, Henry V, Falstaff, Romeo, Juliet, Richard III, and many more. In a twinkling, his carriage, his voice, his very visage transform; Richard III's malign self-awareness; Bottom's hopeless lack of same. McKellan doesn't offer a lot of Shakespeare's background (after all, we know precious little about the Bard), but gives just enough context for the plays. He doesn't provide a lot of his own background, but just enough to let you appreciate how deep his passion for Shakespeare runs. The highlight of the performance is perhaps the extended sequence from MacBeth in which McKellan begins by examining his approach to the part, and how he worked to extract as much meaning from the lines as possible. The excerpts from Romeo & Juliet, though masterfully performed, don't quite fit in with the overall theme.
E1 did a good job restoring the video; overall, the image is just a little soft. There are some video artifacts, including some serious haloing around McKellan in the early going. In person, McKellan's light blue shirt against the reddish orange curtain probably looked good, but the sharp contrast was a bit more than the video could handle. The mono audio track is surprisingly clear, and captures McKellan's rich voice, with all of its lilts and various accents quite well.
Acting Shakespeare is a masterful performance from a masterful performer. If you have any interest in Shakespeare at all, you'll want this disc. There is a sense that McKellan perhaps could have gone a little further in terms of anecdotes and analysis; but at the same time, there is no doubt that McKellan, like the best performers, leaves his audience hungry for more.
"Such stuff as dreams are made on," indeed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Ian McKellan