"Shakespeare Uncovered": An Actor By Any Other Name Makes All The Difference Review

A filmmaker friend of mine recently expressed a desire to improve her ability to work with actors by workshopping scenes from Shakespeare. The thought was that the material is so resolutely timeless, rich with words and ripe for interpretation that it lends itself perfectly to exploring the art of storytelling through performance. She isn’t the only one; actors, directors, scholars and enthusiasts still cannot get enough of William Shakespeare, even as we near the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. I myself am one of them; the whiplash-inducing witty dialogue and strong female characters in plays like Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing stand head and shoulders above much of what has been produced in the centuries since. Fortunately, for people like us, PBS has given us a present in the form of the second series of Shakespeare Uncovered, now available on DVD.

Each of these six one-hour films delves deep into one of the Bard’s most famous plays, and is presented by an actor with a personal relationship to the material: Morgan Freeman helps viewers wrap their heads around the thorny gender issues of The Taming of the Shrew, Joseph Fiennes guides young actors as they pour their passion into Romeo and Juliet, David Harewood learns about the real-life outsider in Elizabethan England who may have inspired the character of Othello, Hugh Bonneville explores the magical world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kim Cattrall encounters the real Egyptian queen who inspired Antony and Cleopatra, and Christopher Plummer shares his experience embodying one of history's most tragic characters, King Lear. The films examine the ancient works that inspired Shakespeare as well as the political and cultural influences of his own Elizabethan England, the various controversies that have surrounded the plays over the years and the significance of particular passages that we all have come to know by heart. Clips from old productions are alternated with modern workshops featuring actors from London’s Globe Theater to illustrate the full spectrum of ways in which these works have been interpreted. In one particularly effective moment that sums up why we can’t stop thinking up new ways to tell these stories, two of the Globe actors approach one of the most controversial scenes of The Taming of the Shrew--a rather sexist speech given by Petruchio to his new wife, Kat--in two different ways. The first is a straightforward reading of Petruchio’s dark, distasteful words describing his wife as little more than an object in his possession; the second is a lascivious, tongue-in-cheek reading that makes the lines more sexy and silly than sinister. The difference between the two performances of the same lines, by the same actors, is striking.

There are a lot of delightful things about Shakespeare Uncovered. To me, the thing that makes the series truly stand out is the decision to have actors guide the audience on their journey. It takes the rather grand nature of the subject matter, which many might associate with sitting through stiff high school lectures, and brings it down to a level that is much more personal and conversational. (Indeed, any English teachers looking for a way to engage and entertain reluctant students definitely ought to check this series out.) This honest emotional connection shines through in wonderful moments such as when Hugh Bonneville visits the outdoor theater in London where he had his first acting gig as understudy for Midsummer’s Lysander and meets up with the actor who he was understudying, Ralph Fiennes, to nostalgically discuss their shared experience, or when Kim Cattrall stands in awe of an ancient bust of Cleopatra at an exhibit in Rome and shares what it feels like to come face to face with a character you have portrayed. These scenes resonate with the viewer and truly showcase the qualities that have given Shakespeare his centuries-long staying power.


There are no DVD special features.

"Shakespeare Uncovered: Series 2" is on sale February 24, 2015 and is not rated. Documentary. Starring Christopher Plummer, David Harewood, Hugh Bonneville, Joseph Fiennes, Kim Cattrall, Morgan Freeman.

Lee Jutton • Staff Writer

Lee attended NYU for Film & TV Production, but she now works mostly in PR. Her primary obsessions in life are Doctor Who, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Arsenal F.C. When not writing about things she's watched, she's running or kickboxing in preparation for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 


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