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Shakespeare on the BBC

July 16, 2012

MY first close encounter with Shakespeare came when I was a first year student at Karachi University in the early Sixties, and a couple of young lecturers decided to stage Julius Caesar. We began rehearsals, and after a couple of months, performed before an audience largely composed of friends and families.I will not claim it was a brilliant production – in fact, Nasreen Azhar’s review in the monthly Mirror was titled ‘The murder of Julius Caesar’ – but it was lots of fun, and was the beginning of lifelong friendships for many of us in the cast. Sadly, some members are no longer alive.

For most of us, this was our first experience on the stage. Javed Jabbar began his thespian career as the conspiratorial Cassius. Ata-ur-Rehman, the ex-head of the HEC, was the soothsayer. Javed Ali Khan played Brutus. I had a couple of minor roles, and then went on to do a few more plays. Anwar Maqsood helped with the sets and costumes, and whenever we get together now, regales us with anecdotes from Julius Caesar.

Since then, I have seen many of Shakespeare’s plays on the stage and on the screen. Each time, I have been struck by the Bard’s versatility and his endlessly creative use of language. Indeed, literally hundreds of flourishes and everyday usages in English can be traced directly to one of his many plays.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” is from King Henry IV. This is part of the series, The Hollow Crown, currently being aired on BBC television. Each of the four two-hour plays is part of a cycle from a turbulent and bloody period of English history when rebellions broke out regularly, and the head wearing the crown had every reason to be uneasy.

Perhaps the best loved and most memorable character among the hundreds created by Shakespeare is Falstaff, the larger than life figure who dominates both parts of King Henry IV. Last year, I saw the two parts of the play in one day in a magnificent production by Peter Hall at the Theatre Royal in Bath. There, Falstaff was played by Desmond Bairnt who turned in a bravura performance as the riotous character who was Harry, the Prince of Wales’ drinking crony.

When Henry IV dies at the end of the second part, and the prince is crowned, Falstaff is widely expected to be an influential figure at the court. But he is quickly rebuked by Henry

“… Reply not to me with a fool-born jest/

V in a cold, imperious speech:

“… Reply not to me with a fool-born jest/

Presume not that I am the thing I was,/

For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,/

That I have turn’d away my former self…”

So full of energy and subtlety was Bairn’t performance that I never expected to see it matched in my lifetime. And yet miraculously, Russell Beale’s Falstaff in the BBC version is full of both boisterous verve and deep sadness, matching Prince Harry’s transformation from a hard-drinking, wenching wastrel into a grave young king who weighs his words with care.

This wonderful TV mini-series permits viewers to grasp nuances that are often missed in the theatre, especially if you are sitting far from the stage. And England is blessed with many ancient forts, palaces, churches and alleys that provide a film-maker with readymade sets. On the stage, a set-designer has to create an illusion around a limited space. Also, outdoor scenes can be shown far more realistically on the screen than on the stage.

However, none of these advantages can possibly compare with the immediacy of being present at a performance. When a good director orchestrates the staging of a powerful play, the audience suspends its disbelief, and is carried away with the force of the acting and the story-telling to another world, another time.

Another reason theatre is so compelling is that actors have absolutely no margin for error: while a scene in a movie can be shot and re-shot any number of times, if an actor fluffs a line on the stage, the whole scene is ruined. So when Desmond Bairnt is Falstaff in both parts of King Henry IV, he is on the stage virtually non-stop for over four hours, playing a riotous loud-mouth, and burning up creative energy in a way a movie actor is not called upon to do.

Nevertheless, The Hollow Crown permits an eight-hour examination of power and ambition in 14th and 15th century England. Of course these themes resonate throughout human history. But in the hands of a master story-teller like Shakespeare, the characters come to life, and the tension and drama of ancient power struggles assume a breathless urgency.

Over the years, the BBC has often been criticised for being elitist in much of its programming. Rival (and envious) channels accuse it of using its licence fees to produce cultural shows watched only by relatively few viewers. However, many BBC shows have added to our understanding and appreciation of creativity in all its forms. Had its choice of programmes been driven entirely by commercial considerations and viewership numbers, we would certainly not have The Hollow Crown today, and we would be the poorer without it.

In many of his historical plays, Shakespeare was writing about periods when the rule of law was shaky at best; thus, he has many lessons for us in Pakistan. When Prince Harry ascended the throne, he recalled the way in which the Chief Justice had chastised him when he broke the law in his earlier days. He asks the judge:

“How might a prince of my great hopes forget/

So great indignities you laid upon me?”

The Chief Justice replies:

“… as an offender to your father,/

I gave bold way to my authority,/

And did commit you…”

The king recognises the wisdom and justice the judge had shown, and urges him to retain his office. Both realise that a harmonious relationship between them is essential for the good of the realm. No chance of this happening in Islamabad, sadly.