TELEVISION / Nurturing new Bards on the block

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The Independent Culture
'I'm sure there were acts like this in Shakespeare's time,' said Michael Bogdanov, turning away from a pub entertainer to address the camera. If so, academics are going to have to rethink existing theories about the invention of the karaoke machine and the premiere dates for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Well, yes, I know what he meant. But if you were watching Shakespeare on the Estate (BBC2) in a suspicious mood, wary at the prospect of cultural wishful thinking, such moments snagged at your attention. Was this the first sign of someone bending over backward to get the right result?

The experiment proposed was simple. Take a popularising director on to an inner-city estate and attempt to interest the residents in Shakespeare.

Clearly this was going to be no easy task; some thought Shakespeare was French or that he wrote in the 1800s, some were indifferent, some were actively hostile. 'You can't seriously look me in the eye and say that Shakespeare isn't a white thing,' said a sharp young black man, who had just given Bogdanov a lesson in etiquette. They did find an old man who approved of 'this guy Shakespeare', but that seemed to be on the basis of the size of his brow.

The early scenes weren't promising either, a mixture of noisy giggling and derision which suggested that the text wasn't going to work any immediate magic. Bogdanov looked faintly depressed at the magnitude of what he had taken on, the profundity of the ignorance into which he dipped a toe. And if the mood of cynicism was still upon you, some of his methods seemed more like premature surrender than engagement - letting the actors rewrite their scenes in fluent yob certainly eased the delivery but exactly how much of Shakespeare remains in 'Oi Romeo - you're a wankah]'

In the end, though, Shakespeare on the Estate was a moving programme, preserved from condescension by honesty and some restrained touches in the direction. A couple of little scenes of an evangelical chapel on the estate, for example, flavoured the film with notions of conversion, of taking text to the benighted, without being grandiose or embarrassing about it. It was an image that offered the possibility of self-mockery and thus defused the viewer's. As did the scene in which Bogdanov was rehearsing a fight: after carefully admonishing his cast about the need for perfect timing and technique he promptly smacked a young actor in the face - an exemplary demonstration of comic timing, it's true, but not quite what he was after.

Leaving that moment in the film properly acknowledged that there might be something clumsy and misplaced about the whole enterprise.

But the experiment did work, despite the fact that the results were highly varied. Even when cut to scraps, the text turned out to pack a punch.

Sometimes, it's true, it was principally because of context. A lager-sipping Caliban gestured at the estate as he spoke - 'here you sty me / In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me / The rest o'th' island', and the frisson that resulted might easily have turned condescending. At other times the lines worked because of a simple clarity of expression. Even poor performances were somehow moving - an image of people given speech.

The best performers were black - both when they appropriated the text (there was an excellent rap version of the cauldron scene delivered over a barbecue) and when they stuck to it (Bogdanov had found a Juliet of obvious talent). You couldn't really tell whether this was accidental or significant, though it did seem that the black actors were far less embarrassed by ornate and archaic language, more willing to submit their voices to its rhythms. But even the Montagues and Capulets had compromised on their hostility by the end: 'Now put thy head betwixt thy paltry legs / And kiss thy sometime hairy ass goodbye,' shouted Romeo during the fight scene - not quite Shakespeare still, but at least they were iambic pentameters.

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