Books: Glued to the Box : Someone shart JR | clivejames.com
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Someone shart JR

In a week which contained a full-scale production of Hamlet, the well-known tragedy by William Shakespeare, there could be no question about what was the most important event — the long-delayed episode of Dallas (BBC1) in which JR got shot.

The BBC overdid the joke, as the humourless are wont to do. After JR had been plugged there was an item on the Nine O’Clock News (BBC1) to tell the world that it had happened, almost as if anyone who hadn’t been watching would be interested in hearing about it. Before the episode rolled there was a great deal of preparatory barking from the link-men. ‘The long-awaited dramatic climax to the present series of Dallas — the shooting of JR!’ In the event, all you saw was JR getting mown down. You didn’t see who was pulling the trigger. Thus was the way left clear for another long tease-play before the next series arrives to put us out of our supposed misery.

The Beeb should realise, poor soft creature, that the Dallas thing is only a gag if you play it straight. After all, that’s what the actors are doing. With the possible exception of JR himself, everybody in the cast is working flat out to convey the full range of his or her, usually her, emotional commitment. Sue Ellen, in particular, was a study in passionate outrage when she realised the extent of her husband’s perfidy. Her mouth practically took off. You will remember that JR swindled all the other big oilmen in Dallas by selling them his oil wells ‘off the coast of South-East Asia’ just before the wells were nationalised, presumably by the South-East Asian Government. This behaviour filled Sue Ellen with disgerst, and she reached for her gern.

Sue Ellen keeps her gern in a bottom drawer. Or perhaps it is JR’s gern and on this occasion she was only borrowing it. Whatever the truth of that, you were left certain of one thing: that you could not be sure it was Sue Ellen who shot JR. Candidates for the honour were queueing up in the corridor. It is even possible that Miss Ellie shot him, since she has been showing increasing signs of madness, singing her dialogue instead of saying it. Don’t be surprised if the sheriff turns up with a wornt for her arrest. There could be a tornt of wornts.

And so to Hamlet (BBC2), starring Derek Jacobi in the title role. As writer/presenter of Shakespeare in Perspective: Hamlet (BBC2), which was transmitted on the previous day, I am duly grateful to the BBC for the opportunity to say my two cents’ worth about the best play in the world. This, however, was only an average production of it. It didn’t matter so much that Elsinore was set in a velodrome, although you kept expecting cyclists to streak past on the banking while the Prince was in mid-soliloquy.

How the play is staged certainly matters, but not as much as how the lines are spoken, and in this production it soon became clear that there was a mania on the loose to speak them in the most pointed manner possible, so that the Bard’s meaning would be fully brought out. We have the Royal Shakespeare Company to thank for many virtues and this one vice — a way of speaking Shakespeare’s blank verse that is almost guaranteed to deprive it of its binding energy, which is not meaning but rhythm. To a large extent the meaning will take care of itself if the rhythm is well attended to, but if the rhythm is broken then no amount of searching emphasis will make up for the loss, and you are left with the spectacle of an actor trying to exhaust the semantic content of William Shakespeare, with about the same chance as a thirsty man trying to drain Lake Windermere through a straw.

Derek Jacobi was an excellent Richard II, but as Hamlet he went out of his way, presumably with the director’s encouragement, to give every line an explanatory reading. Enterprises of great pitch and moment, we were informed, with this regard their currents turn awry. The implication, presumably, was that enterprises of great pitch and moment don’t usually do this, and that it usually happens only to enterprises of lesser pitch and moment. Many a time and oft I was reminded of Robert Stephens’s classically, over-explanatory first line as Oberon. ‘Ill-met (as opposed to well-met) by moonlight (as opposed to daylight), proud (not humble, like other Titanias Oberon had had the good fortune to meet in his time) Titani (not some other well-met fairy of equivalent high rank walking proudly in the moonlight in that particular forest).’

Hamlet’s mother and uncle were more inclined to play it straight and thus drew most of my attention, although Claire Bloom could not help but remind you that she was better handled in an earlier production, Henry VIII, a well-thought-out occasion to which she rose brilliantly. Ophelia was encouraged to participate in the by now hallowed directorial tradition of fiddling about with Ophelia: she looked as if she were just about to sit her Danish O-levels with small hope of passing. Eric Porter rattled on lovably as Polonius, but that’s a hard one to get wrong, since the reactions of all the other principal characters are carefully specified.

Clad in complete steel plus a flying panel of what looked like tulle, Patrick Allen, voice-over in a thousand commercials, was a good ghost, although you would not have been stunned to hear him recommend Danish bacon. One should be grateful, of course, that the ghost was allowed to appear at all. In the latest London stage production, I am told, the ghost is a figment of Hamlet’s diseased fancy, an interpretation which involves re-arranging the text so that Horatio and the sentries never see the spook. How drama critics stay sane is beyond me.

As the Japanese Like It (BBC2) engagingly showed the aforesaid Derek Jacobi on tour with the Old Vic Hamlet in Japan. The stage version of his performance sounded twice as good as the television version. Presumably some of the Japanese theatre companies learned a lot about how to underplay a scene. Their leading actors, even when engaged in contemplation, show a tendency to stamp around like Toshiro Mifune with piles. The Haiyuza company, however, looked wonderfully accomplished. Their transvestite Rosalind was lyricism incarnate and the whole production around him/her bubbled with inventive life. The same director will be staging Hamlet next January. Doubtless he will include plenty of tumbling, juggling and magic sword-fights.

On the South Bank Show (LWT) Melvyn Bragg interviewed Roman Polanski, who was fascinating about his craft. It was refreshing to hear someone of his unchallenged technical skill declaring outright that Laurence Olivier is a film director of genius. Polanski has seen Olivier’s Hamlet twenty-five times. Bragg screened an excerpt from it and there you had it, if you had ever forgotten: the way Shakespeare should look and the way he should sound, with Olivier’s voice moving as quickly and accurately as his body, so that the meaning of the verse rippled outward in your mind as the stress skipped rhythmically forward like a stone flung across the water.

1 June, 1980