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Shakespeare on Screen Television Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of Michele Willems.

Shakespeare on Screen Television Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of Michele Willems. Ed. Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin. Mont-Saint-Aignan: Publications des Universites de Rouen et du Havre, 2008. Pp. 315. 20 (paper) [euro].

"Television rots your brain," claims a series of television commercials promoting Hulu, a website on which one can watch episodes of television shows. The denigration of television is familiar; it is seen by many as a medium aimed at the lowest common denominator and of no redeeming value. But what happens when a Shakespeare play is broadcast on television? Does Shakespeare's cultural capital elevate the medium or does its stigma lower his? Michele Willems invoked this question, along with others, when she asked in her 2000 essay "Video and Its Paradoxes": "Is there such a thing as 'Television Shakespeare?'" Willems pursued television Shakespeare through a number of influential works including Shakespeare a la Television (1987), and her articles "Verbal-Visual, Verbal-Pictorial or Textual-Televisual? Reflections on the BBC Series" (1987). In this Festschrift, two of Willems's former students, Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin, have collected thirteen essays that fruitfully pursue her foundational question through examinations of an extensive range of Shakespeare on television. Bookending the essays are a brief overview and bibliography of Willems's work and an excellent annotated bibliography of scholarship on Shakespeare and television by Jose Ramon Diaz Fernandez.

One straightforward answer to Willems's question is "yes, there is such an entity," and as she herself notes, it is a hybrid entity that demands attention be paid to its mediums' characteristics lest their effects be neglected. A strong example of this kind of investigation is Lois Potter's chapter, which delves into the archives at the New York Performing Arts Library and the University of Delaware Library to examine the production and reception of NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame 1954 live television broadcast of Richard II, starring Maurice Evans. Using these resources and the well-documented history of early television, Potter reads the production against Evans' popular 1937 New York stage production and the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II. The broadcast was a remarkably collaborative affair. Evans chose the play and guided its interpretation. Much of the text and some of the costumes from 1937 were re-used. The cast had so many connections to earlier productions that Potter claims that the broadcast "embodied most of the stage history of Richard II in the first half of the twentieth century" (110). The director, George Shaefer, and producer Albert McCleery, had theatre backgrounds and treated the preparation very much like rehearsals for a stage show. While the production was relatively unpopular at the time and has not been well-regarded since, Potter's study shows that codes for early live television were much closer to live theatre, and that television only slowly developed its own specific characteristics.

Hatchuel and Vienne-Guerrin's jointly authored chapter concerns early television in France, focusing on six adaptations of Shakespeare's comedies during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Emphasizing reception as much as production, the authors note that many of the television actors were familiar to audiences from their theatre work. But Hatchuel and Vienne-Guerrin also extend this intertextuality, noting the actors' later film and television appearances, which made their faces and voices familiar to viewers too young to remember the Shakespeare broadcasts. The programs enable as well an analysis of the increasing sophistication of television as a medium, moving (pace Potter) from a heavily stage-influenced aesthetic to productions that deployed television's flexibility to explore the limits of realism rather than struggle against it.

Two chapters are devoted to the venerable BBC television series: Russell Jackson's interdisciplinary look at Elijah Moshinsky's All's Well That Ends Well that teases out the productions televisual uses of Dutch painting, and Jean-Marie Maguin's close reading of Moshinsky's Coriolanus. Florence Cabaret looks at a more recent British television offering, Tim Supple's mttlticultural Twelfth Night (2003). This program, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Orsino, Parminder Nagra as Viola, Ronny Jhutti as Sebastian, Claire Price as Olivia, and David Troughton as Sir Toby, was marketed especially to schools, and was largely received as an instance of successful colorblind casting aimed at a mass audience. Cabaret complicates this conception, revealing the inadequacies of the term colorblind and exploring the (not always intentional) nuances of meaning the casting brought to the broadcast.

In her chapter on the HBO-BBC series Rome, Sylvaine Bataille states bluntly that she is writing about a series "produced by a channel [HBO] that claims it is not television ... [and that] is not an adaptation of Shakespeare's plays" (227). Over fifty years after Evans' Richard II, television has become so distinct from live theatre that Rome's producers strove to disassociate their program from the high culture connotations of Shakespeare and the low culture connotations of television, seeking the broadest audience possible. But Bataille argues that, for at least some of its viewers, Rome was yet another iteration of the events described by Shakespeare four hundred years ago. She suggests that Shakespeare's versions of these proceedings, especially the examination of the machinations of ambitious men in the pursuit of power, prevent an audience from becoming lost in a Rome that, however authentic, might be too unfamiliar. And HBO'S claim that it is not television can only be partially true. Through its focus on minor characters, and tropes of sex, violence, and betrayal, all familiar to television audiences, Rome integrated television conventions into the sources that Shakespeare himself used.

Along with questions of content, context, and audience, Willems' question leads the contributors to considerations of medium and transmission. Rome was first broadcast in the U.S. on commercial-free, premium cable television, was available on demand, and then was broadcast (commercial-free) in Britain via BBC Two. Episodes can be purchased on DVD or downloaded from iTunes, and clips (presumably unauthorized) may be seen on YouTube. Many people viewed Rome on televisions in their homes, but as with the BBC Shakespeare, a television is not the only screen on which it could be viewed. DVDs may be projected onto movie screens or played on computers, and anything available on-line may be viewed on an iPod or an internet-enabled phone. One element of television Shakespeare would seem to be a multiplicity of media and a consequent ease of access.

However, as Hatchuel and Vienne-Guerrin and Potter self-consciously acknowledge, access to television programs can be as limited as any rare book. Hatchuel and Vienne-Guerrin had to watch their (newly digitized) programs at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Evans Richard II was recorded via kinescope (a 16mm film of broadcast made for legal rather than archival purposes), and Potter viewed a VHS transfer held by her university's library. A quick catalogue search located four other copies in the U.S., at the Library of Congress, the Paley Center in New York, the University of Texas, Austin and the University of California, Berkeley. Whatever the scholarly interest, it is unlikely that these programs will be made publicly available. Ironically, then, another answer to Willems's question is "yes there is such a thing as television Shakespeare, but while it may be intended for broad, public consumption it often resides in archives, available only to scholars."

Beyond questions of access, perhaps the most important insight this thoughtful collection provides in response to Willems's query is the disconnection between the production of television Shakespeare and its means of consumption. The titular preference of Shakespeare on Screen to the subtitle Television Shakespeare captures this detachment, and Peter Holland's afterword articulates many of the attendant questions it raises. The difficulties of taxonomy may be one of the most important. At one time, television Shakespeare may have been fully adequate to describe the texts this book examines. But the proliferation of viewing modes brought about by digitization requires us to consider the plurality of screens on which these texts are viewed and the plurality of viewers using those screens. Television can no longer be regarded simply as the medium of the lowest common denominator.

M.G. AUNE, California University of Pennsylvania
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Author:Aune, M.G.
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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