“We found Shakespeare tough at school”
What a brilliant little film – tucked away on BBC4 but fortunately on the iPlayer for another few days yet, Muse of Fire: A Shakespearean Road Movie is a one hour documentary by actors Giles Terera and Dan Poole exploring the Bard’s reputation for being difficult to understand. This they do by speaking to an astonishing array of people including “ten Oscar nominees, five Oscar winners, one dame, seven knights” along with some of our greatest actors – it’s one of the most impressive roll-calls you’ll see all year (at least until the NT’s 50th bash next week…) – and some regular people too, from estate agents Cambridge to baffled students.
This extraordinary depth of collaboration is at once the strength and the weakness of the film. We get such a wide range of insights from luminaries such as Ian McKellen, Fiona Shaw, Michael Gambon, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi but there’s only time for snippets, the glorious Frances Barber is seen briefly at the beginning never to reappear and the list of credits at the end show all sorts who haven’t made the final cut. There’s so much fascinating stuff that must have been left on the cutting room floor that one can’t help but be a little frustrated – can we get a director’s cut?!
And by the time the road trip element of the film is established – the pair secure a meeting with Baz Luhrmann in Hollywood and journey across America, meeting various souls along the way – the additional stories they uncover along the way all cry out for more attention. The delightful owner of the 40-seat Stageloft Repertory Theatre and his commitment to local drama, the impeccable scholarship of Harold Bloom, Rita Dove’s beautiful poetry – there was a programme in their contributions alone.
But to complain about such an embarrassment of riches would be churlish and these are only niggles in the end. To hear such talented actors speak so frankly about their own journeys with Shakespeare, their own processes in working with his language (the sequence on iambic pentameter was brilliant) and the importance stressed on getting young people to see it performed rather than just reading it in classrooms. One is inclined to forgive the occasional over-exuberance – “everyone has heard of Hamlet” – but whilst that may be true of the vast majority of people watching this, it feels important that this is never taken for granted.