The Thames Shakespeare Collection

| June 23, 2012

Earlier this month, A&E Home Video rereleased The Thames Shakespeare Collection on two double feature DVDs, one featuring the U.K.’s Thames Television versions of Twelfth Night (1988) and Romeo & Juliet (1976) and the other, Macbeth (1979) and King Lear (1974). Here we find a record of director Kenneth Branagh’s 1987 stage production of Twelfth Night, Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench in the Scottish play’s leads, Royal Shakespeare company player Patrick Magee (who worked with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon) as Lear, and, well, a solid version of Romeo & Juliet. Previously, these plays were released individually on DVD by A&E in 2005 before being collected in a single set in 2006. Whether you opt for the new double feature releases or A&E’s previous DVDs, these televised productions are a great addition to any Shakespeare enthusiast’s collection.

Kenneth Branagh offers up an interesting take on Twelfth Night, here, setting the play against the backdrop of a late-19th century Dickensian Christmas. The production features strong performances throughout, and I was amazed how incredibly alike Frances Barber and Christopher Hollis look as Cesario and Sebastian, which immensely strengthened the mistaken identity narrative that surfaces near the end of the play. Special features on Twelfth Night here include a timeline of Shakespeare’s plays and a 20 minute-interview with director Branagh, in which he discusses at length various aspects of the play from the chosen setting, to stage business, to the televised version’s soundtrack. Notably, with regard to the soundtrack, Paul McCartney allowed Branagh to use the tune from his song “Once Upon a Long Ago” to underscore one of the fool Feste’s songs.

Romeo & Juliet may not stand up as one of the greatest productions of the play ever, given that its grand scope is so severely hindered by the limitations of television production, but I’d still say that it’s an all-around solid staging of the piece. I’ve always maintained that a production of Romeo & Juliet is only ever as strong as its Mercutio, and Robin Nedwell here plays Mercutio, most capably, as a sort of raving madman. Unfortunately, Mercutio’s death scene lacks something of the potency it should have had, primarily due to its stagnant staging and awkward framing, being hindered by the medium of television. The conclusion too failed to move me as it should have, not necessarily because of the medium, but for numerous reasons, not the least of which being the Friar’s laughably forced weeping. By way of special features, this disc includes text biographies and “Romeo & Juliet: A Family Feud,” a retrospective interview with Christopher Neame (Romeo) and David Robb (Tybalt).

The black backdrop and virtually nonexistent set of Thames’ Macbeth powerfully forces us into the mindsets of Thane and Lady Macbeth, characters whose dark ambitions we might not otherwise be able to identify with, especially since McKellen’s Macbeth is downright terrifying visually. The result is a Macbeth that drew me in emotionally more than any other production I’ve encountered in my long-time love affair with Shakespeare. The Macbeth disc boasts a wealth of special features, nearly the bulk of the entire collection, in fact. These include introductions by Ian McKellen, an explanation of “The Scottish Play” by McKellen, biographies and filmographies of McKellen and Dench, and a timeline of Shakespeare’s life and plays.

Thames’ King Lear boasts a terrific cast and incredibly tight pacing, with a running time of just under two hours, making it shorter than any other production in this collection. Magee delivers an intriguing and often highly effective performance as Lear, playing the role with an incredible level of desperation, which, it should be noted, makes for a truly powerful “thankless child” speech. However, his portrayal suffers a bit in that his madness remains relatively stagnant throughout the latter acts. The King Lear disc features an interview with Patrick Mower on his portrayal of Edmund and notes with producer/director Tony Davenall.

With cover art characterized predominantly by light green (for Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet) and a vibrant orange (for Macbeth and King Lear), the packaging of these double feature releases will certainly draw your eye more readily than the magenta-dominated artwork of the 2005/2006 releases. However, I find the aesthetics of the packaging a bit inappropriate for tragedies. Given that three of these plays are among Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies, the only play really suited by the new presentation is Twelfth Night. And yet, so far as I can tell, the content of the discs remains the same, boasting the magenta artwork of the 2006 collection behind the newly-pressed discs’ menus. Given that you can pick up these double features for around the same price as the previous releases, I suppose it all comes down to personal aesthetic preference.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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