Tag Archives: Helen Mirren

PBS delivers a valentine from London’s National Theatre

Judi Dench performs 'Send in the Clowns.'

Judi Dench performs ‘Send in the Clowns’ from ‘A Little Night Music’ during ‘ National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage,’ tonight on ‘Great Performances.’

If you’re eager to take a break from the Winter Olympic Games, or if you’re just ready for two beguiling hours of television on general principal, Great Performances tonight presents the national television premiere of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage on many PBS affiliates (as always, check your local TV listings to confirm when it’s airing in your area).
This glittering two-hour special, which was screened as a live satellite transmission to a limited number of U.S. movie theaters last November, spotlights a jaw-dropping array of British actors as they assemble to pay tribute to the first half-century of productions at a venue that is their part-time home: The National Theatre, which opened its doors at the Old Vic in 1983 under the artistic leadership of Sir Laurence Olivier before eventually transferring to its current location on London’s South Bank. The NT, which houses the Olivier, Lyttleton and Cottlesloe Theatres, annual generates an acclaimed combination of both classics and new works each night.
The evening’s program combines archival snippets of great past productions with a number of actors appearing live on stage to perform a speech from a play with which they’re associated. In the most moving example, we see an old clip of Maggie Smith at her most hilariously mannered in a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever from her salad days, juxtaposed with the veteran actress of today as she recites a worldly-wise monologue from The Beaux’ Strategem, a Restoration comedy.
Another huge audience favorite, Judi Dench, appears to recreate two roles that won her the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony Award) as best actress: as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and as aging actress Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Among Britain’s younger contingent of stars, Benedict Cumberbatch appears in a scene from his past triumph in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, while Cumberbatch’s Sherlock nemesis, Andrew Scott, and Dominic Cooper perform a scene from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
The cast of 100 performers also includes such familiar faces as Christopher Eccleston, Joan Plowright, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith, Helen Mirren and Derek Jacobi.
As the program unfolds, the producers’ desire to pack as much as possible into two hours inevitably starts to feel like the video equivalent of picking one’s way through the greatest Whitman’s chocolate sampler of all time, as one great moment in English drama after another follows all too fleetingly on the other. Also, I do regret that not all plays or even featured performers are identified (for the record, that’s a singer named Clive Rowe bringing down the house in “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls).
Still, even if you can’t put a name to an occasional face or performance, there’s no missing that, in terms of quality per minute, National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is an embarrassment of riches.
Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Rosenkrantz in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’

An intermittently haunting ‘Spector’ from HBO

Photo Credit: Phillip V. Caruso/HBO
There’s an absolutely brilliant scene about 15 minutes into David Mamet’s new film Phil Spector, which premieres Sunday on HBO. On a rainy night in 2007, attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), who has been drafted onto Spector’s (Al Pacino) legal team by lead attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), arrives outside the Alhambra, Calif., mansion of the eccentric music mogul, who stands accused of murdering cocktail waitress and failed actress Lana Clarkson on Feb. 3, 2003.
The illumination on the grounds throws spooky shadows onto the house and, as Baden enters the abode, she finds herself in an almost surreal combination of Versailles and carnival fun house, with corridors leading to ornately over-decorated and overstuffed rooms connected by doors that often open the “wrong” way or lead to false entrances. The HBO press materials include a note by Mamet – who both wrote and directed the film, in addition to serving as an executive producer – that he wanted the scene to be evocative of a famous moment in Cocteau’s 1946 fantasy Beauty and the Beast, as Belle makes her way into the Beast’s forbidding castle for the first time. At the heart of the place, however, she finds not a fearsome monster as Belle does, but a shambling and seemingly harmless little man, sort of like the one Dorothy finds when she explores the inner sanctum of The Wizard of Oz.
This Phil Spector who welcomes Linda acts nothing like the volatile megalomaniac accused of shoving a pistol into Clarkson’s mouth and pulling the trigger on that fateful night. He seems instead to just be a weary old man who wants to relive his glory days in a rambling monologue as Linda tries to take in the staggering clutter of memorabilia, which we suspect may mirror the inner state of Spector’s mind on top of everything else. But although Linda previously had thought Spector’s defense was virtually unwinnable – after all, his chauffeur that night testified that, after a gunshot came from inside the house, Spector came out and said, “I think I just killed somebody” – Spector insists on his innocence, saying that the driver, who barely spoke English, misunderstood him when he said, “I think I should call somebody” to report what he says was Clarkson’s self-inflicted wound.
That scene is a major highlight of this new HBO Original, and there are other compelling moments as well, but Mamet has dealt something of a self-inflicted wound to the movie as a whole with the startling disclaimer he puts up at the beginning of the film: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.”
So, according to Mamet, Phil Spector apparently isn’t a courtroom drama or a reliably fact-based character study or a docudrama, which might leave the possibility that it’s a cerebral meditation on whether juries occasionally convict defendants simply because they don’t like them. But wait, Mamet isn’t commenting on the trial or its outcome, either.
That doesn’t leave a whole lot to hang a 90-minute film on, even when it’s written by one of America’s most dazzling wordsmiths and acted by a cast that includes two world-famous Oscar and Emmy winners who never have shared a dramatic screen together before. And it also robs Phil Spector of a lot of the dramatic urgency it might otherwise have.
As for the two star performances, both Mirren and Pacino are very good indeed. She has a somewhat easier task, since even if we allow for occasional fudging of details for the sake of drama, Linda Kenney Baden’s point of view is fairly easy to understand: As she spends more time with the defendant, she comes to believe that blood spatter evidence and other forensic tests strongly suggest that it would have been impossible for Spector to have shot Clarkson in the mouth at close range without being virtually painted in her blood, instead of having only a half-dozen small spots on his jacket. When a friend of Clarkson angrily confronts Linda and challenges her to prove that Spector didn’t do it, Linda calmly replies that her job is simply to prove that the hard evidence raises reasonable doubt that her client is guilty.
Pacino has a more challenging row to hoe, since he has to master some of Mamet’s characteristically dense verbal arias that make up Spector’s frequent rants and attempt to create a cohesive character out of a role that stubbornly remains, well, somewhat spectral. It’s a busy portrayal, to be sure, although thankfully Pacino never crosses the line where his performance is more a matter of quantity than quality. In a climactic scene, after spending extensive time and energy trying to prepare Spector for a risky appearance on the stand, Linda is stunned and dismayed when he turns up for this critical day in court with his hair in a mile-high gray Afro like a refugee from a clown college for senior citizens. Why is he doing this? Is he suffering from dementia? Angling for an insanity defense? Who knows?
That moment is the last part of the trial Mamet shows us. Pre-credit cards at the end advise us that, with Linda leading his defense, Spector’s first trial ended with a deadlocked jury; a second trial, in which Linda couldn’t participate due to some personal health issues, resulted in his conviction.
Mamet isn’t going to comment further on this, of course. But the jury at home is free to draw its own conclusions.

Bard games on PBS

In his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard floated the whimsical premise that the Bard’s endearing comedy Twelfth Night had been inspired by a (completely fictional) love affair he had while penning Romeo and Juliet. That film is a delightful romantic comedy, but Shakespeare Uncovered, a wonderful new six-film series premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates, manages to be just as entertaining by sticking to the facts as it explores the stories behind some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
Two back-to-back hourlong episodes air on three successive Fridays, each hosted by a notable artist who has a passionate interest in the subject at hand, starting with Ethan Hawke, a former movie Hamlet who now is keen to get his kilted killer on in the title role of Macbeth. What follows is an engrossing look at one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most enigmatic plays, a work so haunted that superstitious actors refer to it only as “the Scottish play,” believing it bad luck to speak the actual title aloud.
As with the series as a whole, the episode draws on scholarly research from historians who provide background on the real-life Macbeth, who lived roughly 1,000 years ago, as well as commentary from actors who have grappled with the thorny roles of Macbeth and his formidable Lady (keep an eye peeled for a brief excerpt from an early TV production of the play with Sean Connery in the title role!).
The aforementioned Twelfth Night is a prominent part of tonight’s second hour, a fascinating appreciation of Shakespeare’s comedies hosted by Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck), joined by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, whose own career was launched via an early 1960s televised performance as Rosalind in As You Like It. Both actresses bring a palpable passion and joy to their exploration of how Shakespeare’s comedies contain some of the playwright’s most profound observations on the human condition, especially as it pertains to women. The hour also includes some insightful commentary by Helen Mirren, an acclaimed Rosalind in her own right.
Next Friday’s episodes feature Derek Jacobi exploring the political thriller Richard II, including scenes from an upcoming Great Performances film adaptation of the play starring Patrick Stewart and Ben Whishaw, and Jeremy Irons reflecting on the history plays Henry IV and Henry V, also due for a Great Performances adaptation starring Irons and Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers).
The series concludes on Feb. 8 with David Tennant (Doctor Who) plumbing the depths of Hamlet and director Trevor Nunn considering Shakespeare’s last completed work, The Tempest.
While Shakespeare Uncovered is packed with interesting details, the series strikes a canny balance between scholarship and entertainment, so it should appeal both to Shakespeare enthusiasts and relative newcomers to these plays. Viewers who come to these episodes with at least a rudimentary grasp of what the featured plays are about, however, probably will have a slight advantage.