Britain asks, who is Ethan Hawke, while America responds, who is David Tennant — and why is it again that we should care about Shakespeare?
Of course those questions are facetious, but they summarize the PBS documentary “Shakespeare Uncovered.”
A TV program on the world’s greatest playwright, if it intends to reach a wide audience, should be serviceable for viewers in need of Shakespeare 101 and provide enough savory prime-cut information for those who devour theater.
The BBC/Globe Theatre co-production with the PBS New York City outlet WNET, a six-part series that begins Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. on KUED, walks the thin tightrope of those two objectives and surprisingly enough succeeds.
Over three consecutive Friday evenings, two hour-long segments focus on plays by the Bard, each with a celebrity host who unravels a play's meaning through a mix of performance, history and analysis.
In the first episode, Hawke, primarily known for his Oscar nomination for “Training Day,” tackles “Macbeth.” British cognoscenti may eye-roll at his selection, but the Tony-nominated Hawke has played the lead roles to acclaim in stateside productions of “The Winter’s Tale,” “Hamlet” and “Henry IV,” among other challenging stage roles.
Tennant is more unknown to Americans (unless you’re a “Doctor Who” fan), but he has attracted sellout crowds on England’s stages and has been honored with every British acting award that wasn't nailed down since his role in “Hamlet” for the Royal Shakespeare Company. To mark the RSC’s 50th anniversary, a photograph of Tennant as the Danish prince was featured on a stamp issued by the Royal Mail.
Hawke and Tennant are joined by celebrated actors Jeremy Irons (examining the most iconic history plays, “Henry IV” and “Henry V”) and Derek Jacobi (the political thriller “Richard II”) and director Trevor Nunn (“The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater). While looking into the comedies, Joely Richardson interviews her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, whose portrayal of Rosalind in “As You Like It” made her an international theater star.
“Shakespeare Uncovered” gets to the heart of the matter in an interview with American scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare’s great gift as a writer is that he never holds people at arm’s length,” Greenblatt precisely explains. “He never says, ‘Look at this person; isn’t he disgraceful? Isn’t he ridiculous?’ Shakespeare always says, ‘It’s me, it’s you, it’s us.’ He always does that.”
Commenting on the richly absorbing series in ain introductory PBS press conference, Irons declared that “Shakespeare shines as the greatest dramatist of all time because he was writing about the human condition: jealousy, envy or unrequited love, or the relationship between family members. It’s something that hasn’t changed. So when we see those plays now, they still speak to us, they have a resonance, (while) hundreds of plays written since then don’t.”
Shakespeare remains the unrivaled playwright and poet, even close to four centuries after his death, and he continues to enjoy the stature of a colossus in world literature.
It is noted that in the opening episode on “Macbeth” there is ample blood flow in scenes of simulated violence that is necessary for the play and a brief excerpt from a modern-dance version involves obscured male nudity cleansing the actor of some of that spilled blood.