Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

While the world and his wife celebrate the life and works of Charles Dickens for the year that's in it, another great wordsmith has been occupying the minds of many period dramatists of late and may be set to have a very prosperous 2012 indeed. As the centrepiece of London's Cultural Olympiad this summer, BBC Two has assembled a who's who of Shakespearian interpreters to bring to the small screen the great man's tetralogy of plays detailing the lives of three successive English kings. Hugely celebrated theatre directors Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre and Thea Sharrock will direct Ben Whishaw (regally pictured above), Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston in the title roles of Richard II, Henry IV - Parts 1 and 2 and Prince Hal/Henry V respectively. The admirably ambitious project will feature an exhaustively Harry Potter-esque happy breed of familiar faces including David Suchet, John Hurt, Reece Shearsmith, Iain Glen, Alun Armstrong, Lindsay Duncan, David Morrisey, David Bradley, Niamh Cusack, Maxine Peake, Richard Griffiths, Paterson Joseph, Tom Hughes, Harry Haddon Paten, Tom Goodman-Hill, Michelle Dockery, Clemence Poesy and Patrick Stewart with Rory Kinnear, Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale appearing as the iconic characters of Bolingbroke, Mistress Quickly and Falstaff.

Meanwhile, the oft-filmed tale of the star-crossed lovers who, let's just say never get around to shopping for the first home together in the greater Verona area, will be back on the big screen before the year is out. Adapted by another one of Maggie Smith's favourite writers, Julian Fellowes, Romeo and Juliet is currently being filmed on location in Italy by Italy's own Carlo Carlei. It will bring the timeless tragedy back to 16th century basics, more Zefferelli than Luhrmann and feature an exciting mixture of acclaimed acting veterans and acclaimed bright young things in the cast. Fresh from the Gargery forge, Great Expectations's Douglas Booth will star as Romeo alongside the Oscar-nominated American actress from True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet with Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick as Tybalt, Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee as Benvolio and Christian Cooke as Romeo's BFF Mercuitio. Lesley Manville will fuss as The Nurse, Paul Giamatti will garden as Friar Laurence, Damian Lewis and Natasha McElhone will be cold and distance as Juliet's parents and Stellan Skarsgard will try in vain to uphold the peace as The Prince. I welcome the project wholeheartedly although it will be difficult for folks from my generation to listen to the Queen Mab speech without expecting a flamboyant rendition of Young Hearts Run Free to follow in rapid succession.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy 200th Birthday Charlie!

"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day." - Great Expectations, 1861.

In A League On Her Own

Samantha Barks is a young woman of great expectations. The above photograph is of a rather extraordinary night in the 21 year-old musical performer's life. Since she came third in the BBC's search for a young woman to play Nancy in a revival of Lionel Bart's Oliver! in 2008, Miss Barks has been seen consistently on stage in London most notably as downtrodden street urchin Eponine in concerts at the O2 arena to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Les Miserables. Last Tuesday, she was playing the role of Nancy in a U.K. tour of Oliver! in Manchester when legendary theatre impressario and the man behind the Les Mis phenomenon, Cameron Mackintosh, joined the company on stage to surprise the recently-resurrected tart with a heart with the news that she has been cast as Eponine in the much-anticipated big-screen adaptation of Les Miserables. Quite a coup!

Given the extreme star wattage to be found elsewhere in the cast, it was presumed that the coveted role (Eponine does sing On My Own, after all) would be awarded to a Hollywood starlet, the latest name in the frame being that of country superstar and wannabe actress Taylor Swift. This is a rather charming underdog story and Mackintosh, who is producing the movie, and the director Tom Hooper must be commended for opting for Samantha Barks who, despite being a relative unknown, has already proven herself in the role. She will now enter a revolution-torn love triangle with the man of the moment, Birdsong's Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Mamma Mia's Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, who will arrive in London in the coming weeks straight from filming the title role in a biopic of the notorious 1970s porn star Linda Lovelace. Eponine's neglectful parents, the odious Monsieur and Madame Thernadier, will be played by Sweeney Todd's Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.

Meanwhile, the exciting international cast of Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert and Broadway and Gossip Girl star Aaron Tveit as Enjolras will be joined by the original stage Valjean and Eponine, Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle, in cameo roles as the kindly Bishop of Digne and "a fabulous whore" - respectively!

Friday, February 3, 2012

The MacLaine Game

Cynicism and period dramas are strange bedfellows and, consequently, I avoid the former as much as is humanly possible in my bloggings about the latter. My admiration for the likes of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs would surely crumble, dear reader, under the weight of a jaded, facetious approach to Sunday night viewing. The anachronistically impressive teeth alone would be the cause of much consternation. It happens occasionally, however, that one cannot help but feel somewhat dismayed by certain goings-on. It has been suggested in the British press that ITV deliberately announced the casting of Shirely MacLaine in Downton Abbey's third series on Monday evening to upstage the BBC's press launch for the second series of Upstairs Downstairs, a still from which is shown above, which took place that afternoon.

Sure enough, all entertainment outlets were the next day buzzing with the undeniably exciting news of the Oscar-winning UFO enthusiast's forthcoming appearance as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora's brash American mother while tales of Jean Marsh's determination to recover from a stroke and heart attack to return to housekeeping duties in 165 Eaton Place and of a lesbian storyline featuring newcomers Emilia Fox and Alex Kingston, both discussed at the press launch, were decidedly thin on the ground. It is a pretty poor showing from the Downton camp if such allegations are founded and it is difficult to understand why ITV chose to make such a headline-grabbing announcement on that day at that time of day if not to undermine Heidi Thomas's 1930s-set revival of the classic series, which has been foundering under the behemoth triumph of its Edwardian equivalent.

It seems to me that the dirty tactics are hardly necessary and that ITV and Team DA have served to undermine the constant protestations from series creator and writer Julian Fellowes that there is plenty of room for both shows to flourish and co-exist in perfect harmony. The right honourable Matthew Crawley would be appalled at the skulduggery. He really would!