Archive TV review: Greek tragedy on the small screen #1, BFI Southbank

The BFI Southbank has a new series showing during June 2012 showcasing productions of Greek tragedies made for television, and this is the first screening in that ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ season, curated by Amanda Wrigley.

Two productions of the first Theban play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, opened the season last night. First up, a BBC Play of the Month from 1972 entitled ‘King Oedipus’, in a translation by E.F. Watling (the same one which is used in the Penguin Classics Theban Plays collection); and following that, a production for the Open University in 1977 called ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’, which abridges the play to the closing act only, in a translation which is rather more up-to-date (notably where Oedipus states he was told he was a ‘bastard’ rather than ‘not his father’s son’.

‘King Oedipus’, then, is a modern dress production – which is timely, given the National Theatre’s current stage production of another of the Theban plays, Antigone, which also has a modern setting – and stars Ian Holm as the central character, Anthony Bate as Creon, and Sheila Allen as Jocasta. All are excellent but I was especially impressed with Holm, who is perhaps underrated these days as an actor.

In the early scenes he invests the king with quiet military dignity, but becomes more troubled and disturbed as the play progresses until, finally, in one deep exhaled breath, all his world comes crashing down. It is a tour de force performance. The play as produced here also doesn’t flinch from the scenes which Sophocles originally intended to be ‘off-stage’ (the suicide of Jocasta, the blinding of Oedipus), and in a modern depiction of the chorus uses recurring musical motifs in different settings to show the increasing chaos in Oedipus’ adopted land. Also of note within this case are Alan Webb as blind prophet Teiresias, wheelchair bound and with thick dark sunglasses denoting his blindness, Alan Rowe as a Corinthian ambassador who seeks to do good but brings calamity and destruction, and George Coulouris as the shepherd frightened to reveal the secrets only hinted at by the Gods.

I was familiar with the play from studying it at school, and from the film with Christopher Plummer (Oedipus the King, 1968) and the television production with Michael Pennington (Oedipus the King, 1986). I cannot therefore comment on whether the play would make sense to a new observer; however, the modern setting works well, with the marches and dancing of the soldiers standing in for a more traditional chorus, and the contrast between Creon as the king’s brother-in-law, content with a quiet life, and later as the military leader, calm in uniform and following the rules in condemning the now blinded Oedipus to exclusion and eventual exile (‘I do not come to mock’).

This production, now almost entirely unknown, is a superb version of a play which can now seem ridiculous with all its coincidences and oracles, but in the expert hands of director Alan Bridges and producer Cedric Messina, never becomes so.

The second screening of the OU’s ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ could have been more problematic – Patrick Stewart is the king, Rosalie Crutchley the queen, Ronald Radd the man from Corinth, John Citroen the shepherd, and John Forbes-Robertson Creon. There is also an early appearance from Roy Marsden as a herald. But all are half masked and wearing woollen wigs, and there is a simple set of a door, a walkway, fronted by a chorus who perform as the Ancient Greek theatre would require, with measured words and fluid movement. For all the traditional look, the translation is more akin to contemporary speech in places, and undoubtedly the sight of blinded Oedipus with red mask, painted stripes on his neck, and flowing red ribbons, is touching indeed. I felt that Stewart shouted the part rather than inhabited it though; Crutchley did better, more suited to the mounting frustration and desperation of a Queen who simply wishes to snatch at happiness in ignorance, whatever the cost.

There is no denying that the staging is distracting and the wigs and masks not needed; however, the play survives undamaged, albeit with the first scene-setting act missing. The production clearly has a much smaller budget that the 1972 ‘King Oedipus’, but was aiming at a different auidence, one who pored over the text rather than sitting down for an evening’s entertainment. It was directed by Richard Callanan with music by Judith Bingham.

A pair worth watching then (although I suspect this play may be on school syllabuses again judging by some of the audience, especially the one who could not quite suppress the urge to text and email throughout!), although opportunities to do so will probably be slim, given the BBC’s track record for commercially releasing their treasure trove of television dramas.

A companion website including this season can be found at http://screenplaystv.wordpress.com/, which features John Wyver’s project on televised plays from 1930 to the present day on British television, which is based at the University of Westminster and funded by the AHRC.

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Archive TV review: The Winter’s Tale (1962), UnLOCked, BFI Southbank

As part of both the World Shakespeare Festival (for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) and the UnLOCked season (showcasing material thought lost from the archives which was located in the Library of Congress in 2010), this adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1623 play ‘The Winter’s Tale’ was the first done for television, transmitted on Good Friday, 1962, on the BBC.

Running 144 minutes, there is little pruning of the original play, which centres on the kingdom of Sicilia, where the jealous King, Leontes (Robert Shaw), accuses his Queen, Hermione (Rosalie Crutchley) of adultery with his good friend and neighbouring monarch, Polixenes (Patrick Macnee). In his murderous hate he attempts to have Polixenes murdered by his faithful servant Camillo (Nigel Stock), and casts Hermione’s baby daughter into the wilderness to die as he is convinced she is not his. As for Hermione, when she comes to trial her innocence and piety causes her to expire in front of the court, sending a penitent Leontes into a sixteen year period of repentance and sorrow.

Don Taylor directs this sparse version of the play, which employs minimal settings, close-ups, and a set of excellent performances to put across a play which has its difficulties (coincidences, Apollo, statues, and a bear). As well as the principals, there are comic turns from Ron Moody (Autolicus), Norman Rossington (Clown), and a measured performance from Brenda Bruce as Hermoine’s faithful maid, Paulina. Other memorable turns include an Antigonus from Geoffrey Bayldon and a Perdita from Sarah Badel which fit the next perfectly, and there is an early appearance from William Gaunt in a minor role.

Although Crutchley might not be everyone’s first choice as the wronged Queen Hermoine, she does well here and convinces, especially in her trial scene – less so in her early, flirty scenes with Macnee (perhaps because he doesn’t really go well with Shakespeare). And despite being missing from screen for a whole act of the play, Robert Shaw is an excellent Leontes, with his Northern grit and desperation adding to the portrait of a King possessed, and finally, (‘O, she’s warm …’) lost for words and emotion.

These BBC recoveries are real gems, and another restored piece in the history of Shakespeare on screen. With only one other production of this play having been made for television (during the BBC Shakespeare season of the 1970s-80s), this is surely a valuable and fascinating recovery. A pity, then, that there were so few to watch it in the BFI Southbank cinema last night – audiences are missing a treat.