Derek Jacobi revisits the role of Richard II which he played in 1978 for the BBC. He reveals why it might have cost Shakespeare his life, and shares some of the political parallels within the play that still resonate today.
In Twelfth Night and As You Like It, Joely Richardson investigates (with a major contribution from her mother Vanessa Redgrave) the legacy of the two great comedies and the great comic heroines created by Shakespeare in those hugely popular plays. Shakespeare's comic heroines are well known to be some of his greatest creations and in this film Joely looks at Viola in Twelfth Night, washed up on a foreign shore, having (for her own safety) to disguise herself as a man and then falling in love with the man she is working for. Then there is the legendary Rosalind in As You Like It, who also spends much of the play disguised as a man but in the process torments and teases the man she loves in an effort to uncover how sincere he is. Joely investigates the reason why these heroines spend much of their time dressed as men - it was because they were originally created for young men to play. But at the same time we find that Shakespeare revealed an acute understanding and sympathy for women when he wrote these characters. A variety of film versions are studied alongside the most recent productions at Shakespeare's Globe, and with contributions from the world's greatest Shakespearean scholars like Jonathan Bate and Germaine Greer and from actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren, this film reveals the legacy of strong, sassy, witty women that we inherit from William Shakespeare's great comedies.
In Hamlet, David Tennant, whose own RSC performance was a huge hit, meets other actors who have played the role - from the legendary David Warner in the 1960s to the recent Jude Law. He also tries, alongside Simon Russell Beale and Ben Whishaw, to unravel the meaning of the play and the reason why it is considered by many to be the greatest play Shakespeare ever wrote. David Tennant surprised when he took on the role of Hamlet - most did not know that he had trained in and worked for many years at the Royal Shakespeare Company. But that didn't mean he wasn't scared stiff at the prospect of taking on the legendary role. Now he takes up the challenge of unravelling the story and trying to uncover what it is about it that has made Hamlet the most famous of all of Shakespeare's plays. He revisits his own performance, alongside his director Greg Doran, and he meets up with other actors who have tackled the role. With the historian Justin Champion he tries to enter the mindset of the 16th century audiences who would have watched this story and he discovers how different generations of actors, directors and scholars have interpreted the play. What he discovers is that Hamlet is a play full of questions rather than answers - but they are the questions we all continue to ask ourselves to this day. Questions about who to believe, who to trust, how to live and how to love, how to understand life and how to face death. What all the actors who have played it seem to share is that the process of acting the role is deeply and profoundly personal - and perhaps that is why audiences also feel that the play touches them more than any other play before or since.
Director Trevor Nunn looks at the magical and mysterious world created in Shakespeare's last complete play, The Tempest. Trevor finds out where Shakespeare got his material from and the strange personal insights hidden within it. It is a truly experimental work but sadly perhaps also Shakespeare's farewell to the theatre. The Tempest is peculiarly suitable to film - ambitious, experimental and full of magic. Not surprisingly, one of the very first silent film adaptations of a Shakespeare play was The Tempest in 1911. As Trevor reveals, it was actually written for an experimental theatre - Shakespeare's first indoor space, the Blackfriars. There is a replica of the theatre in Staunton, Virginia and Trevor sees a rehearsal of the opening scenes of the play using the full panoply of early 17th-century special effects. Shakespeare was probably prompted to write it by a true story of shipwreck and survival which Trevor uncovers, but it is a deeply autobiographical piece, filled with concerns about the upcoming marriage of his own daughter and informed by Shakespeare's need to address many issues in what would be, in effect, the last full play he would ever write. Thus it becomes a play that defies genre - not a tragedy, not a comedy, not a history and not a revenge play - but with elements of all of those. Trevor takes us through the story of the magus Prospero, abandoned on an island with his daughter Miranda. He tells about his spirit companion Ariel and his slave Caliban, and shows how the opportunity for Prospero to wreak revenge upon those who abandoned him ultimately leads to one of the sweetest stories of love and forgiveness. It's a story in which Shakespeare himself seems to be reflected in the character of Prospero, who ends the play by giving up his magic just as Shakespeare is giving up his own to return to Stratford where, only two years later, he dies. Trevor completes his investigation from the church in which Shakespeare is buried.
Performance poet John Cooper Clarke explores Thomas de Quincey's autobiographical classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and discovers how his fellow Mancunian's addiction memoir avoids the cliches of modern 'misery-lit' in favour of something much more unsentimental and psychologically complex.
Derek Jacobi looks at Richard II and returns to a role he played 30 years ago. He helps actors at the Globe with aspects of the play, reveals why it might have cost Shakespeare his life, and shares some of the extraordinary political parallels within the play that still resonate today. Derek first played Richard II for the BBC in 1978 - now 34 years later Ben Whishaw is starring in a new BBC film of the play. Derek spans those dates and uncovers what is so special about this play. Although written entirely "in verse", it is nonetheless one of the most resonant and relevant of all of Shakespeare's plays. Its understanding of power and its inevitable tendency to corrupt and distort the truth are continually repeated in current affairs. Derek visits Shakespeare's Globe and shares his thoughts with actors rehearsing the play - but he also looks at his own performance and those of other actors who have over the last 30 years tried this taxing role. Richard is both a king and a man who knows he is acting the role of a king. It makes him an extraordinary character for any actor to play. But was this play written by the actor William Shakespeare? Derek is one of those who doubt that and he visits the ancestral home of the man he thinks might very well be the true author of 'Shakespeare's' plays. Richard II is a politically sensitive play, with a monarch having the crown taken from them. Derek goes on to tell of the attempted coup against Queen Elizabeth led by the Earl of Essex, and how that involved Shakespeare's company of actors. The Earl persuaded them to put on the play to encourage his "plotters" and it could have cost Shakespeare his life. With contributions from both the director and leading actor - Rupert Goold and Ben Whishaw - and clips from the new film, Derek uncovers the continuing resonance of this extraordinary play.