Judge Jim Thomas was once uncovered, but he swears it was just a misunderstanding.
Shakespeare Uncovered combines history, biography, iconic performances, and new analysis to tell the stories behind the stories of Shakespeare's greatest plays. What sets this series apart from most other Shakespearean documentaries is that each episode is filtered through the personal experiences and passions of its hosts. There are six episodes:
• Macbeth—Ethan Hawke (Gattaca)
Glancing over that list, you might suddenly hear the old Sesame Street tune, "One of These Things is Not Like the Other, One of These Things, Doesn't Belong." Yeah, you kind of get the impression that Ethan Hawke was thrown in as a sop to those bloody colonials—even though Hawke has had a solid stage career, including several Shakespearean turns. Part of the problem is that against the rest of the presenters, almost anyone is going to suffer by comparison. While Hawke's passion for the material is evident, he never manages to articulate that passion with the clarity of the others. Mainly, though, I'm just insanely jealous that he got to put his hands on a freaking First Folio.
All of the episodes have roughly the same goals—to put the plays into the context of Shakespeare's day and to identify the underlying enduring themes that have made these works timeless. This would be a good set simply on those merits alone, but where this series goes the extra mile is to give us a glimpse of the play from the performer's perspective—and not just the perspective of the presenter, but of a variety of performers. In addition to hearing Jeremy Irons talk about Henry IV's paternal conflicts, we also get to hear Tom Hiddleston (Thor) talk about Henry V's own issues. David Tennant offers the tale of a man who bequeathed his own skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company for the express purpose of being used as Yorick's skull. Right after you finish going "Ewwwwwww!," Tennant describes how holding an actual skull transformed the graveyard scene for him. Since he's holding that very skull as he relates the story, we get a better sense for it as well. Joely Richardson interviews her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, about her 1963 performance as Viola in As You Like It. We get a wide variety of performance footage, both from stage and film; it's particularly nice to get glimpses of Helen Mirren's charming turn as Rosalind in the 1978 BBC/PBS production of As You Like It as well as seeing her as the transgendered Prospera in Julie Taymor's 2010 The Tempest.
The capstone of the series is Trevor Nunn's look at The Tempest, Shakespeare's last and most daunting play. More than any other of his plays, The Tempest is about performances (it was meta before meta was meta), so it's only fitting that Nunn, former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the original director of Cats and Les Miserables should examine it, even going so far as to give Forbidden Planet a shout-out. Nunn has some fascinating insights into the ideas of the play in the context of Shakespeare in his twilight (Shakespeare died in 1616, only two years after finishing this final play). The passion of Nunn and the other presenters for the material lends a freshness to the material, with none of the staleness that can permeate a more staid production. A wide variety of performances are used, from silent films to recent RSC productions.
It's not all good news, though. Derek Jacobi's take on Richard II is marred by a 5-minute interlude in which Jacobi presents his case that Shakespeare's plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Immediately afterwards, one of the Shakespearean scholars backstopping the project promptly dismisses the claim, and things settle back down quickly.
Technically, the disc is all over the place. While the new footage is generally solid, there's a fair amount of archival footage that is of mixed quality; even some of the newer sections have an excessive amount of grain. The audio is solid, though there are some issues with the archival material as well. While there are no extras on the disc, there is a fair amount of supplemental material on the project website. The potential for some solid extras is certainly there—in particular, the snippets we get of Richardson talking with her mother, as well Tennant talking with Jude Law about playing Hamlet, make you want to listen to the whole thing.
Shakespeare Uncovered's title is quite appropriate, as the passion of the presenters bring a beguiling intimacy to the proceedings. The episodes highlight the essence of these plays without trivializing the plots, enriching our appreciation not just for the plays, but for the performers who would try and make a legendary character their own. These are specials not to be merely watched, but savored.
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