Illuminations have shown their penchant for Shakespeare more than once... The DVDs of Sher's Macbeth, Tennant's Hamlet, RSC's African Caesar - to name but a few - have been a real treat for the less fortunate of us who could not audit the live performances. Recently, Illuminations have joined dramatic forces with Touch Press and Faber & Faber to produce a DVD of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Directed by John Wyver, the DVD accompanies the initial launch of the iPad app The Sonnets by William Shakespeare. The app has some additional features like expert commentary and linguistic notes from the Arden Shakespeare and on the whole enjoys the overall technological advantages of an Apple product. The DVD, in its turn, is remarkable for its own sake - while the iPad app will offer a more personalised enjoyment of the sonnets hardly with any restriction of place, space, time and arrangement, the DVD undoubtedly reaches larger audience.
It is the DVD that teachers can use in the classroom and lecturers in the lecture room. To the obvious practical productivity is added the diversity of the cast who recite the sonnets. For my students, this will be as much an introduction to some must-know names from Shakespearean stardom as a default reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets. You will get to hear professional actors, performers and poets alongside scholars and professors. The focus of the venture is as much Shakespeare's Sonnets as the "star-studded cast", many of whom, though expressing artistry of delivery not always going well with the semantics of the sonnets, give the DVD the calculated effect. And while some of the famous names are on the cast for their famous names exactly, several of the performers are truly outstanding.
You will agree that the joy of hearing Cicely Berry or Stephen Fry goes beyond a single sonnet well recited. Ben Crystal's performance of Sonnet 141 stands out in that it is in the original accent. Here I cannot but put in a plug for the recent excellent CD production of Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation by the British Library, overseen by Ben Crystal.
I find it irresistible to single out the readings by David Tennant, Oliver Ford Davies and Katherine Duncan-Jones, they being among my favourite Shakespeareans. It was touching to hear my best-loved sonnet - 71, read by David Tennant. Even though there is nothing extraordinarily unique about his recital and I am usually prone to hearing a female voice in that specific sonnet, Tennant is just the actor who knows how to act out a human feeling.
However, you will evaluate the recitals more objectively if you listen to the sonnets rather than watch. I tried this out before settling to write the present review. Face off the screen, you are more able to focus on the sonnets than the people. Polly Frame is one of the best performers among the cast - the reverberations of her voice, the sincerity and ease of her recital is remarkably dramatic and effective. Emily Plumtree and Harriet Walter come next in the sheer beauty of voice in delivering a sonnet.
I have used "performance", "recital" and "reading" interchangeably here. The DVD cover and the useful booklet that comes with the disc use exclusively "performance". Set in different beautiful locations in London, sitting on a majestic vermillion sofa in a back room of the Candid Arts Café in Islington, on a chair against a spring window or backing a reflective mirror, the actors recite the sonnets by heart. If we stick with the word "performance", it is Fiona Shaw who does indeed perform the sonnets, with gestures, genuinity, mobility and rich facial expressions. Her conveyance of the sonnets is brilliant, impressive, lively and absolutely infectious. I could not help wishing she had performed all of the 154 sonnets!
Though a bit standardised and at times spiritless, the DVD of Shakespeare's Sonnets is bound to become what exactly the BBC Shakespeare Complete Collection of the plays are - a must know classic.