All things to all directors

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
CONJURING SHAKESPEARE. BBC2. Wednesdays, 7.30-8pm. To October 15.

The Open University is evidently very pleased at having this six-part "showcase" series in a prime-time slot, rather than at the unsocial hours that its output usually occupies. The accompanying booklet, long on design, short on text, celebrates the event: seven out of its 13 pages are about Shakespeare, the other six about the OU, "not only Britain's biggest university, but its brightest". Sign on, sign on - and hope that Lysander is wrong (in A Midsummer Night's Dream) when he says "so quick bright things come to confusion".

It is not the first time, of course, that our most famous dramatist has been exploited for advertising and similar purposes; the varied uses of Shakespeare could be said to be the theme of the series. Scenes from productions of the play alternate with contributions from actors and directors, whose views on interpretation are often dogmatic, and sometimes contradictory.

Is there magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the subject of the first programme; and, if so, what kind of magic? Jonathan Miller hates the notion of mere conjuring tricks and shudders at Victorian ideas of fairyland. He must surely hate the 1935 Hollywood version of the play - but in any case, he is opposed to cinema adaptations of Shakespeare in general. And, in this particular case, he thinks that the The Dream is not the best play through which to introduce people to the dramatist's work.

The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre company, on the other hand, look askance at the experiments of Brook and Miller, love the idea of magic and consider this probably "the most accessible" Shakespeare. One thing certainly does emerge: this is the play that allows the widest range of interpretation on the part of directors, from the traditional panoply of forest greenery, fairy wings and asses' heads, to umbrellas, Sellotape, giant insects and hats with ears. It also raises, through the rude mechanicals and their performance, the whole question of theatrical reality.

Jonathan Miller's argument, which is quite persuasive, is that cinema may be too literal a medium for Shakespeare. But, then, the second programme, on Henry V, is largely devoted to an analysis of the Laurence Olivier film, against a background in the "Old Vic tradition" of Shakespearean acting, in the radio "voice plays" of the 1940s, and visual sources that include Eistenstein and Les Tr s riches heures du Duc de Berry. Less dogmatic than the programme on A Midsummer Night's Dream, and less pretentious than the third one, about gender identity in As You Like It, this is a convincing illustration of the idea of Shakespeare's work as part of a living and evolving tradition.

It would be of value in teaching film studies and history, as well as literature. Informative, rather than bright, it is the piece in the first half of the series that does most to justify the early evening slot. King Lear and Measure for Measure are the main topics for October.

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