wed 24/04/2024

Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women, BBC Four

Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women, BBC Four

Talking heads say very little of interest

Joely Richardson, for whom Shakespeare is in the family DNA

Who better, you might think, than Joely Richardson, a member of the Redgrave acting dynasty, to front a programme about Shakespeare? He runs deep in the Redgrave-Richardson DNA, she told us, sitting in the Old Vic Theatre where her mother Vanessa Redgrave's arrival in the world in 1937 was announced onstage by Laurence Olivier, playing Hamlet to her grandfather Michael Redgrave's Laertes. It certainly trumps The Times' social pages.

Only what a peculiar programme this was, which certainly didn't do what it said on the tin. It was shown as part of the BBC's Shakespeare Uncovered season and Joely Richardson may have, as she told us, been brought up on Shakespeare, but she's not known as a great interpreter of his work and much of her recent career has been in films and on American television. She did have a great talking head to call on, though - her mother was a contributor.

There were lots of academics giving their tuppence worth too, but rather too many statements such as “Shakespeare never forgot his family” and "Shakespeare loved strong women”, which are neither provable nor believable. He may not have forgotten his family in the years he spent apart from them, he may have loved strong women, but equally he may not. And surely that is part of the beauty of the Bard: we don't have much of a clue what he thought about anything and so can interpret his writing in myriad ways.

Surely any number of female roles could have been chosen to show the exact opposite

The first half of the programme was about the importance of twins in Shakespeare's work, which one, er, expert posited was because he was the father of twins himself. No shit, Sherlock. Twins as a device go back to, oh, the Greeks and, as had already been established, Shakespeare wasn't around for much of his twins' lives anyway to examine their behaviour to use as the basis for his work, which - again, as far as we know - was largely not autobiographical.

The time spent talking about twins was, I suspect, because one of the roles Richardson wanted to examine (when she finally got around to it) was a twin - Viola in Twelfth Night - and Rosalind in As You Like It. They were chosen to show how much Shakespeare liked strong women, but surely any number of female roles could have been chosen to show the exact opposite.

There's a crucial similarity between the two characters; both Viola and Rosalind spend much of their time disguised as men so this programme turned into a discussion about the importance of cross-dressing in Shakespeare because, as everybody knows, at the time female roles were played by boy apprentices in his company. Unless Shakespeare is now being claimed as a soothsayer who knew that within 50 or 60 years of his death female roles would be played professionally by women, any interpretation of what he may have intended for his female characters is anybody's guess.

What we do know is that his female characters have to be seen through the prism of his writing them to be acted by a boy - and where the disguise roles are concerned, a woman pretending to be man played by a boy pretending to be a girl. Freud was mentioned more than once in this context, but no one quite got to the nub of it, which rather sums up the programme. Not even the presence of the great Germaine Greer, whose book Shakespeare's Wife I heartily recommend, could lift this from being a dumbed-down, celebrity-led arts programme that had very little to say, and nothing new to impart.

Thankfully we got to see some fantastic clips of various actresses – including Redgrave, Felicity Kendal and Helen Mirren - playing Viola or Rosalind. But what a waste of some very talented people and of an hour of arts television.

There were lots of academics giving their tuppence worth with statements that were neither provable nor believable

Share this article


Rosalind isn't a twin - the closest family relation to her age is her cousin, Celia.

Yes, I thought the same. Although I must hasten to agree with the reviewer that the programme was lost and oddly executed. It might not be foolish to get one's facts right when calling for a higher brow of television.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters