The Royal Shakespeare Company has released the first disc in its Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon series, which features live broadcasts to cinemas of plays from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and subsequent releases on DVD and Blu-Ray. This release is Richard II, staring David Tennant. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) I attended a production of this play shortly before it was filmed, and you can read my review. I liked it, but was not overwhelmed by it; I felt David Tennant was excellent, but some of the company was weak, and the overall design didn’t really grab me.
But it’s worth discussing the quality of the production on the Blu-Ray (and DVD), which, to me, could hardly be better. I’ve become a regular at the RSC; I live a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon, and it’s my “local.” Since I moved to the UK just over a year ago, I travelled there often, then moved nearby, in part to have this wonderful theater a few minutes away.
Being in the two RSC theater’s is magical. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where Richard II was filmed, has about 1,000 seats; the Swan Theatre, next-door, about 460 seats. Both have thrust stages, where the audience sits on three sides of the stage, in a horseshoe shape. Wherever you are in either theater, you’re very close to the stage. I’ve sat in many different locations for a dozen or so productions, and I’ve never been disappointed. Whether in the front row, or in the back, you get a great view.
From the first scene of the play on disc, it’s obvious that they’ve got it right. I immediately had the feeling of being there, in the theater, in the play. While Richard II starts with a shot from above the stage, which I wasn’t able to see in person, the rest of the filming recalled what it was like to be there, in person.
The camera work is excellent, the lighting perfect for both stage and film, and there is a judicious alternation of close-ups and long shots, letting you focus on faces – better than in the theater – in certain scenes, and giving you the big picture for others. The editing was tasteful; no quick cuts, as often seen in classical music videos, and the overall editing gives a great sense of the entire stage. And one part of the play benefited greatly from the film. When Richard II is in prison, he’s in a cell beneath the stage. A large part of the stage opens up to show him, and sitting where I was in the stalls, I couldn’t see inside. The boom camera, however, can show him there, giving me a bit more than what I got live.
The only criticism I would have was the sound. At times, actors weren’t miked perfectly, notably in the early scene when Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray were kneeling, facing the king, with their backs to the front of the stage. While one of the bonus features on the disc mentioned that the actors were wearing microphones, it didn’t sound like it, at least not at this part.
The disc contains a number of bonus features. Some are videos, most of which were available on the RSC web site, but there’s a director’s commentary, with director Gregory Doran and producer John Wyver, discussing the play and the production. I only listened to a few minutes of it, but I’ll be checking that out in the future.
This is an auspicious beginning to a wonderful project. Artistic director Gregory Doran has begun a cycle of all of Shakespeare’s plays, without repeat, over the next six years, and if the Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon project is successful, we’ll have a wonderful complete set of filmed productions of the plays after that time. This will rival the only existing complete set of the plays, that produced by the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s.
If you like Shakespeare, grab this. If you just like David Tennant – and there were enough people who felt that way to make this production a sellout in both Stratford-Upon-Avon and London – get it anyway. It’s not the best Shakespeare play, but the quality of the filming makes up for any weaknesses in the production.