Perhaps there is no greater testament to the enduring strength of Shakespeare’s plays than the rich, incredibly varied interpretations the plays have encouraged, provoked or (in some cases) endured . Feudal Japan, 21st century American high school, gangland New York, fascist nation-states, a back-bacon obsessed Canadian brewery even. IMDB lists over 100 titles related to Macbeth alone.
The purpose of the 2nd series of PBS’ engaging documentary series “Shakespeare Uncovered” is not to survey these dramatically wide-ranging examples. But it’s definitely a happy by-product. In this new series, we have six more episodes structured along the same line as series 1, with six different hosts digging in to six different plays that have particular personal resonance for them.
Rooted around London’s rebuilt Globe Theater, the hosts outline the plot of each play, while taking enjoyable sidebars into the real locales, the historical facts that inform the stories, and footage of those various revisionings by the BBC, Hollywood, the Royal National Theater, and even high school and theater class scenes.
Series two includes “The Taming of the Shrew” with Morgan Freeman, “Othello” with David Harewood, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Hugh Bonneville, “Antony and Cleopatra” with Kim Catrall, “King Lear” with Christopher Plummer, and “Romeo and Juliet” with Joseph Fiennes. Each of the hosts relate their personal performance in the play, questions and thoughts from other performers and learned academic types, and how those questions and the layers of history have informed other performances and interpretations.
There is a comfortable uniformity of tone and substance that binds the series together – drawing contemporary links such as the modernity of Shakespeare’s take on young love, political spin and its connection to the stage, the war of the sexes in 1500 vs. 2014. This is not exactly action-packed stuff, and despite its best intentions, it does help to have a basic familiarity with the plays beforehand.
That said, the scripts are unpretentiously informative, and the talking heads (a mix of academics, performers and adapters) are well-chosen, well-edited to have something clever or perceptive to say most of the time, and they rarely overstay their welcome.
Not surprisingly, the ace presenter is the wily Morgan Freeman, whose own sly performance as Petrucchio in a wild west version of “Shrew” is a highlight. Bonneville is the expectedly avuncular presence, if not especially perceptive, and Harewood speaks eloquently of the racial issues that continue to inform our understanding of “Othello.” His chuckling contempt as he watches a clip of Laurence Olivier’s black-face performance in a 1950’s film version is both a high-water mark of the series’ historical contexts and laugh-out-loud funny.
The DVD of “Shakespeare Uncovered, Series Two” is presented in six episodes on two discs. The variety of film clips (silent, black and white, tv video, modern digital) are given very professional treatment in the widescreen format. There is an option for English SDH subtitles.
The audio track is the standard, satisfying Stereo 2.0 that accompanies almost all PBS releases.
Disappointingly, given the rich possibilities of the subject matter, there are no extras included.
Informative and mostly well-paced, “Shakespeare Uncovered, Series Two” balances the scholarly with the entertaining, and finds insight in unexpected places.