Get ready Shakespeare lovers. Shakespeare Uncovered returns to PBS this Friday, January 30th. Like the first series, the second celebrity-hosted installment will cover a wealth of information, including a look at some iconic performances, historical and biographical data, and new analysis by noted scholars and guests, all of which will open up six of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
In the first episode at 9:00 pm, Hugh Bonneville offers a behind the scenes look at his favorite Shakespeare play, and the one that started his career, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then at 10:00 pm, Christopher Plummer explores the depths of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, King Lear, a role he played under the direction of Sir Jonathan Miller.
Bonneville understudied the role of Lysander in Midsummer in 1986 at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. It was his first professional role, which he then played when the company took the show on tour. The actor he was understudying was none other than Ralph Fiennes, also in his first role as an actor. Fiennes joins Bonneville for a thoughtful discussion about the universal appeal of Midsummer, its crisscrossing plots, and their relationship to the play.
The episode also features clips from Peter Brook’s game-changing 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production, the BBC’s 1980 production with Helen Mirren as Titania, and also the 1935 film which featured James Cagney in the role of Bottom. Directors Dominic Dromgoole and Michael Grandage offer insight into the play, as does Julie Taymor, who recently directed a vivid production at the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn.
Taymor talks about staging Puck’s invitation into the dream at the opening of the play, and also her favorite scene, the quartet in the woods, which she says is “violent, nasty, and heartbreaking.” Bonneville compares how the scene goes from rhyming couplets to blank verse without any rhyme, which are Shakespeare’s emotional clues about how to play the scene. “It’s as if by using these subtle shifts in form and language Shakespeare is writing his own background music.”
We meet fairy expert Dr. Diane Purkiss from Oxford University, who says that Shakespeare’s fairies aren’t what she calls “candy floss fairies… little pretty fairies that are forces of good. They’re altogether something darker and riskier,” and later Bonneville talks about the historical significance of a line Oberon says that we hardly notice today, “a mermaid on a dolphin’s back.” For that story we go to Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire where the connection to one of the greatest love stories of the Elizabethan Age becomes clear.
There is analysis by Gail Kern Paster, Director Emerita of Folger Shakespeare Library; Professors Jonathan Bate and Laurie Maguire from Oxford University; and Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, whose thoughts on the play contribute to a thoroughly engaging hour of educational entertainment. I was completely charmed from beginning to end.
The complete schedule will air on PBS as follows (check local listings).
January 30, 2015
9:00 pm: A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Hugh Bonneville
10:00 pm: King Lear with Christopher Plummer
Friday, February 6, 2015
9:00 pm: The Taming of the Shrew with Morgan Freeman
10:00 pm: Othello with David Harewood
Friday, February 13, 2015
9:00 pm: Antony & Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall
10:00 pm: Romeo and Juliet with Joseph Fiennes
Produced by Blakeway Productions, 116 Films and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET in association with PBS, Sky Arts and Shakespeare’s Globe. For more information and to view previews of upcoming episodes of Shakespeare Uncovered, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered.
Pictured above: Ralph Fiennes and Hugh Bonneville. Photo credit: Andrea Southam