By Blanka Šustrová
Our hero lives in a small cottage somewhere in Warwickshire. He has to feed and clothe his old, grumpy parents together with his wife (eight years older) and their three children – a mopey teenager that only speaks in grunts and twins whose only interests are sweets. He commutes to London every week to work as an actor in a horribly understaffed company and when he snatches a bit of time for himself, he writes. Because, you know, he is a poet, an unappreciated genius of his time, an innovator of language… How is it possible that he is not famous yet? Well, his best friend steals his verses, his wife needs his humble wage as “she has a cottage to run”, his London servant Bottom makes fun of him but the worst of all – his nemesis publicly calls him an upstart crow.
This could be anyone’s story, so why not William Shakespeare’s?
There have been numerous film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, set in different time periods with better and lesser known actors. The only film about Shakespeare himself is, however, Shakespeare in Love (1998), a romantic comedy awarded with seven Oscars, directed John Madden and written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman.
Nevertheless, Upstart Crow – a sitcom commissioned by the BBC as a part of the programming schedule celebrating 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, that premiered on 9 May 2016 on BBC Two, means a new format for Shakespeare’s adventures offering a different narrative style. Britain has a great tradition of sitcoms, and pairing a comedy series with its trademark Renaissance writer had to appear on TV screens sooner or later.
Regarding the making of a sitcom about Shakespeare, David Mitchell, the main star of the series said that “Shakespeare is arguably globally the most significant creative figure and he’s a random bloke from the Midlands. That’s something for this country to mark and the BBC is a key broadcaster in this country so, of course, the BBC should do a big thing about it and it would be terrible if it didn’t” (The Independent).
The first series consists of six episodes, each mirroring Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets, creating a playful pastiche of the Bard’s work and life, mixed with contemporary satire.
Will Shakespeare comes back to life with the help of the aforementioned David Mitchell, a Cambridge alumni, a Guardian columnist and a comedian well known for his collaboration with Robert Webb on the BBC 4 radio comedy sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Sound and also from Channel 4 Peep Show, a BAFTA winning sitcom about two Croydon flatmates – an awkward depressed cynic (Mitchell) and a childish slacker (Webb). For his quick wit and funny rants, David Mitchell is also a frequent guest on several panel shows, most notably Would I Lie To You?, where he holds the position of a team captain.
Mitchell’s Shakespeare is a bit of an awkward dreamer, too progressive for his environment; an enthusiastic poet who is, at times, crushed by the reality of the late 16th century. He lives and breathes for the beauty of language and although his family does not understand his great journey to become a famous playwright, they at least tolerate his artsy whims. He even teaches his eldest daughter Susanna (portrayed by a Channel 4 Raised By Wolves star Helen Monks) to read – which, at that time, was a skill uncommon for girls of her position to acquire – so that she can do a read-through of her dad’s plays with him on weekends. Yet Susanna in her teenage years pours out Juliet’s lines lazily in a Brummie accent heavily accompanied by inarticulate noises to show her annoyance with poetry, claiming: “Ugh, dad, nobody speaks like tha’!”
“I always thought that the sentence sounds better if you mix up the words a little bit,” replies her father in the first episode and the audience gets a possible answer to why are his plays such a pain to read for those unfamiliar with Elizabethan language.
Although Susanna appears only briefly in the six episodes of the first season, Monks’ comedy talent shines among all her experienced colleagues very well.
Another notable comic side character is Edmund Kempe, a famous comedy actor from Burbage’s tiny sad 4-player company based in the Red Lion Theatre. Played by comedian Spencer Jones, Kempe is the original annoying Renaissance alternative against-the-flow hipster, a “bumpington” (as would Mitchell’s Shakespeare say) yapping about Italian Commedia dell’arte being obviously a superior form of art to the English theatre.
RadioTimes called Jones’ Kemple “a cocky 16th century Ricky Gervais”, as he mimics the popular comedian’s mannerism and voice, boasting in every episode about being popular abroad.
“Producer Gareth Edwards said that the character was an ‘affectionate nod’ to Gervais”. Unfortunately, “Gervais’ press representatives declined to comment” (RadioTimes).
Shakespeare likes making influential friends but has to pay a price for it. The role of Will’s occasional companion in pie eating and ale drinking fell upon lavishly portrayed Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (Tim Downie), the life of every party, a charming, handsome and confident secret agent who is on a mission to hunt English Catholics. He uses his writing career as a cover and often manipulates the gullible Shakespeare into giving him his plays.
Apart from Mitchell’s idealistic, intellectual and likeable Shakespeare with an occasional spark of supressed fury that fits him like a glove, and the aforementioned roles of Susanna, Marlowe and Kempe, other characters are not as strident as they could have been. The creator of Upstart Crow, Ben Elton, who also wrote scripts for Blackadder (from series 2 onwards), did not give Shakespeare a sidekick as good as Baldrick is to Edmund Blackadder. Blackadder, with its biting dialogue and memorable quotes has a great character dynamic that Upstart Crow lacks at times.
When meeting Shakespeare’s nemesis, poet Robert Greene played by Mark Heap (Big Train, Spy), one cannot shake of the feeling that his acting sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the other characters. Greene is a pretentious, evil, tricky and selfish character and Heap develops these features to their highest possible expression. Do not expect a subtle villain. On the other hand, it might have been Elton’s intention to let Heap play Greene that way. If you remember Edmund Blackadder and Lord Flashheart, you might recall a similar dynamic between Shakespeare and Greene.
Upstart Crow has a few running jokes throughout the series – Shakespeare is always complaining about the horrible carriage commute from London to Stratford that can take up to three days, depending on broken wheels, heavy rain, horses’ poor health or corpses blocking the path. Yet the running joke of casual Renaissance sexism towards Kate (Gemma Whelan) – Shakespeare’s London landlord’s daughter, representing repressed Renaissance female intellectuals, who is “overeducated” for her position and gender and desperately desires to become an actress, which is forbidden (“You know, it is still illegal for girls for girls to do anything interesting”) – wears thin throughout the series and eventually becomes annoying and no longer funny, just as try-hard Kate herself does.
Nevertheless, Upstart Crow’s comedy does not stand on Kate’s desperate fight against established norms and Greene’s loud entrées. It has a lot to offer.
Its greatest achievement is Elton’s famous language craft and Mitchell’s “everyman charm”. Mixing up poetry, lines of Shakespeare’s plays, obscurely funny metaphors and the speech of the common folk whose only interest are saucy jokes is fresh and a joy to watch. In Elton’s newest sitcom honouring the great Bard as well as the great British satire tradition, Shakespeare is not the unattainable genius from Renaissance times, he is one of us – he is just a bloke from Stratford – a man that has to handle his family and work on a daily basis, on his way to success.
The year of Shakespeare is slowly coming to an end – but that does not necessarily mean the end of Shakespeare’s sitcom adventures. BBC commissioned a Christmas special for the end of 2016 and a second season of Upstart Crow is expected to return in March 2017.
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