Scenes to be believed

19th April 1996 at 01:00
English Time Special: Shakespeare Shorts, Age range: 14 plus, BBC2, Fridays, 1.00pm, April 19 May 17, Free programme guide, BBC Education 0181 746 1111

Based on the premiss that you can sell anything to anyone with the help of a celebrity, Shakespeare Shorts, BBC schools television's five-part English Time drama-documentary series, uses soap stars to bring alive five key scenes from Shakespeare.

Anna Friel, formerly Beth from Brookside, Patrick Robinson of Casualty and Louise Lombard of The House of Eliott give their all to Hermia, Mark Antony and Lady Macbeth, while Juliet and Malvolio are played by Marcelle Duprey and Nigel Planer. Although their interpretations may not stand comparison with some of the magnificent performances shown briefly in old film clips (it's a pity these are sometimes ridiculed), the actors in the series discuss and perform their roles with energy and commitment.

Each programme begins with the stars chatting enthusiastically about the situation in their chosen scene, and what they feel is going on inside their character. Lively discussions and rehearsals are intercut with classic film interpretations, followed by an uninterrupted performance.

Finally, the stars return in their own character to pose a leading question designed to spark off classroom debate what would have happened if Juliet had agreed to marry Paris? Or if Brutus had let Mark Antony address the crowd?

In her introduction to Act Three, Scene Five from Romeo and Juliet, (in which Juliet defies her parents by refusing to marry Paris) Marcelle Duprey declares that she sees Juliet as stong and feisty and not the "complete drip" she's often made to seem. Her complete obedience to her parents, she explains, only seems odd because "these days children get more licence".

To set the murder of Julius Caesar (Act Three, Scene One) in a television studio seems absurd, if only because if someone was stabbed here, security guards would surely appear and the murderers wouldn't get a chance to stand around talking. But Patrick Robinson rightly points out that cruelty and political corruption are as relevant today as they were in Roman times.

Act Three, Scene Three of A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in a disused warehouse. It seems perverse to dispense with the atmosphere of an outdoor summer night, but there's plenty to discuss here, particularly in the way Helena and Hermia's close friendship disintegrates when they become rivals.

Nigel Planer plays Malvolio as the pompous estate manager of a grand country house. His reading of the planted love-letter from Olivia (Act Two, Scene Five) lacks the comic richness of Richard Briers and Alec McCowan, but his lucid discussion of the role carries real authority.

The individual scenes have been well chosen and Shakespeare Shorts makes excellent use of its stars' street cred to draw young audiences into the heart of Shakespeare's plays.

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