It was the worst of times; it was the best of times. There were fewer stage plays on British television in the first decade of the twenty-first century than in any previous ten-year period. The maturing of multi-channel broadcasting, coupled with additional competition from other home entertainment forms and the internet, increased the pressure on free-to-air terrestrial channels to deliver ratings. Filmed original drama was perceived to attract audiences far more effectively than stage plays, and the high production costs of the latter were only rarely out-weighed for commissioning channels by any reputational value, which in any case was in most cases thought increasingly to be of marginal worth.
At the same time, and especially in the past three years, new forms have developed, both on and off terrestrial television, which suggest that stage plays on screen most definitely have a future. NT Live and Digital Theatre are creating high quality productions for, respectively, cinema and online viewing. Shakespeare’s Globe and other theatres are also exploring these possibilities. The digital channels BBC Four, More4 and Sky Arts have also begun to engage with how they might work in imaginative ways with the stage. So while this outline of one hundred significant television stage plays – created to offer a tentative map of the history of the form – comes to a close with relatively few productions from which to choose in this decade, this is certainly not the end of the story. My choices below are restricted to productions for television (and so exclude NT Live and the like), and as before, if there are significant broadcasts that I have missed, do please use the comments below to point out my omissions.
91. The Tragedy of Hamlet by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Peter Brook, produced by Yvon Davis, broadcast on BBC Four on 6 March 2002.
At the start of the digital channel BBC Four, there was an explicit commitment to bring more theatre to television. The channel experimented, with minimal success, by recording a handful of in-house recordings of current shows. It also co-produced with the French broadcaster ARTE this spare yet beautiful film of Brook’s radical reading of Hamlet. There is a good Japanese television interview (in English) about the production with Brook here and a detailed discussion by John Murphy at Bardolatry,
92. Beckett on Film: Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, directed by Atom Egoyan, produced by Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney, broadcast on Channel 4 on 30 March 2002.
All nineteen of Beckett’s plays were shot for the screen for the ambitious project Beckett on Film co-produced with Channel 4. Prominent stage and film directors contributed to the project, including Richard Eyre, Katie Mitchell, David Mamet and the visual artist Damien Hirst (who shot the 45-second Breath). A full list of credits can be found here on Wikipedia, and the full set of films is available a four-disc DVD box-set.
Krapp’s Last Tape, originally written in 1958, was filmed by Atom Egoyan with John Hurt as the lonely figure revisiting his past by playing an audio tape recorded thirty years before. Egoyan said at the time:
I am fascinated by human interaction with technology. Beckett explores the contrast between memory and recorded memory as Krapp reminisces on his 69th birthday, struggling to reconcile perception and reality. Technology is an enormous issue today, so Beckett’s themes are hugely relevant. The human inability to communicate in reality is brought into sharp focus.
93. Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, directed by Howard Davies, produced by Richard Fell, broadcast on BBC Four on 29 September 2002.
Michael Frayn’s drama, originally staged at the National Theatre, imagines the meeting in 1941 between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Howard Davies successfully re-staged the play in the television studio, with the original cast of Daniel Craig, Stephen Rea and Francesca Annis. There are archived BBC Four pages still online exploring this translation.
94. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, directed by Tim Supple, produced by Rachel Gesua, broadcast on Channel 4 on 5 May 2003.
Tim Supple’s film is set in the twenty-first century, is packed with contemporary resonances (including the idea of modern-day asylum seekers) and features a strongly multi-cultural cast. The distinguished cast includes Parminder Nagra, Chiwitel Ejiofor and David Troughton. The film was primarily financed by the Education department at Channel 4, and detailed curriculum notes – with many details about the production, can still be accessed here. There is a harsh review from John Murphy at Bardolatry here, and a much more positive response here.
95. Richard II by William Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll and Sue Judd, produced by Richard Fell, broadcast by BBC Four on 7 September 2003.
This was a live presentation for television of the production starring Mark Rylance. I discussed the production in a detailed Illuminations blog post after its showing at BFI Southbank in September 2009. There I wrote:
I tried [in this viewing] to look past the stage production, and for part of the time to think mainly about the way the cameras dealt with what is a really tricky space. Not least because you can – and need – to see the stage from at least three sides. There were some mis-calls on the camera cues, especially towards the start, and it all felt a bit overbright with a lot of artifical light thrown at it, but television director Sue Judd did her job well. There was a coherent construction of the world of the Globe and a strong sense of the audience’s involvement. […]
The real difficulty with Richard II was the one that we all fear in the consideration of live presentations from the theatre. It did all seem shout-y. The whole show was given at a high pitch, which plays almost invariably have to be to work in this setting, and there was little variation in actors’ volume. As a consequence, I found it really hard to hear the poetry, and I had to give in to broad effects (some of which were quite effective) of a cast playing to the gallery and being rewarded, at times really oddly, with laughs.
96. Elmina’s Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, directed by Angus Jackson, produced by Sally Stokes, broadcast by BBC Four on 13 June 2005.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s drama, set in a West Indian kitchen in Hackney, was first seen at the National Theatre in 2003 and revived in the West End in 2005. Angus Jackson’s version for television was shot primarily in the studio with the original cast. The original publicity production notes from BBC Four remain online.
97. Celebration by Harold Pinter, directed by John Crowley, produced by Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney, broadcast by Channel 4 on 26 February 2007.
The producers responsible for Beckett on Film brought together this studio film of Pinter’s late drama that was first staged in 2000. The cast includes Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth and Michael Gambon.
98. Hamlet by William Shakespeare, directed by Gregory Doran, produced by John Wyver and Sebastian Grant, broadcast on BBC Two on 26 December 2009.
Having blogged this production of the RSC staging with David Tennant extensively throughout its making (a page of links to reactions is here; the production blogs are detailed here, with further links) I’m not sure that there is anything new that I can say about this. The official BBC page for the production is here.
99. A Reluctant Tragic Hero by Anton Chekhov, directed by Christine Gernon, produced by Ted Dowd, a Baby Cow production for Sky Arts first broadcast on 14 November 2010.
Chekhov: Comedy Shorts is what they called the season of four one-act plays shot in the studio by the production company Baby Cow for Sky Arts in the autumn of 2010. The casts are terrific – here Johnny Begas and Mackenzie Crook – but the presentation is a touch pedestrian. Nonetheless it was remarkable to see the digital channel Sky Arts tackling classic theatre. Details of all four productions can be found online at The British Comedy Guide here. My Illuminations blog post ‘Amusing trifles’ discusses the quartet; another post Seventy-plus years of Chekhov on TV considers the presentation of these comic one-acters by the BBC in the earliest years of the medium.
100. The Port Talbot Passion by Michael Sheen and Owen Sheers, National Theatre of Wales, Wild Works and the community of Port Talbot; film produced and directed by Rupert Edwards for BBC Wales, and shown on 12 June 2011.
At Easter 2011 the actor Michael Sheen staged an extraordinary telling of the Passion story with the people of the Welsh town of Port Talbot. Details are on the National Theatre of Wales web site, while Jasper Rees’ article for theartsdesk gives a vivid sense of what it was like to be part of the event.
Two films of the production were produced – one has yet to be released – and the documentary for BBC Wales was broadcast in two parts. The first part, The Town Tells Its Story, is an exploration of the background to the production, while the second, It Has Begun, is primarily a performance film. More details can be found at the unofficial fan site michaelsheen.co.uk, but this is an appropriately complex and hybrid project with which to complete this list of one hundred productions.