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Conversation: Uncovering the Bard With Jeremy Irons

Watch Jeremy Irons on Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS. See more from Shakespeare Uncovered.

 

Airing now on PBS is the series “Shakespeare Uncovered,” six films that tell the stories behind some of the Bard’s greatest plays. The series is hosted by some pretty hefty talent, including Ethan Hawke, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn and Jeremy Irons.

Many of us first met Irons, one of the great actors of our time, on “Brideshead Revisited” on PBS, and he now stars in “The Borgias” on Showtime. He has won an Oscar (“Reversal of Fortune”), a Tony (“The Real Thing”) and an Emmy (“Elizabeth I”) — only one of 14 actors to achieve the so-called triple crown of acting.

I spoke to him by phone Thursday:

**”Shakespeare Uncovered: Henry IV & Henry V with Jeremy Irons” airs Friday at 10 p.m. ET. Check your local listings.**

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Now on PBS, a series titled “Shakespeare Uncovered,” six films telling the stories behind some of the Bard’s greatest plays. The series is hosted by some pretty hefty talent, including Ethan Hawke, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn and Jeremy Irons, certainly one of our great actors of time, from when many us first met him on “Brideshead Revisited” — also on PBS, by the way — up to currently “The Borgias,” with many film and stage performances in between and many no doubt more on the way. Jeremy Irons joins us now by phone from Los Angeles, and welcome to you.

JEREMY IRONS: Hello, nice to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your involvement in this series came about in part because you were playing Henry.

JEREMY IRONS: Yes, the director got in touch with me, Richard Denton, saying, ‘I want to make a documentary about the Henrys — Henry IV, I and II and Henry V.’ I was rather intrigued, a little confused because I had been involved the films of Henry IV, parts one and two, which go out, I think, in September. For me Henry IV was very personal at that time. I was living the character, and the documentary would involve me watching and commenting on other performances that have been recorded in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you were right into this question, because these films on PBS are really about the story behind the story, the characters. What drew you to wanting to play Henry?

JEREMY IRONS: It’s very interesting, because on stage it’s not a part I would have been attracted to, but in order to put them into two hours of film you have do some judicious cutting, and if an experienced director does that — Richard Eyre used to run the National Theatre in London and he’s a very experienced man in Shakespeare. He had done a wonderful cut, which I think advantaged the character of Henry IV, who normally on the stage you aren’t able as an audience to get inside his predicament in quite the same way that you can on film, having the camera coming close to you so that you can communicate in a much more complicated way than you can often on the stage, where you’re often stuck in the back on a throne having to speak a lot more dialog than is in the film, often describing what we can show in the film because we can go onto location as we did.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that character, the father, is a little more distant than the son, right? The son is up front and sort of in our face all the time.

JEREMY IRONS: That’s right. Although it’s about kings and princes, it’s actually quite a domestic play. It’s a play about a young man growing up — Prince Hal — about his friends who are quite a little bit degenerate, Falstaff, a sort of heavy drinking, heavy whoring aristocrat who spends most of his time in the pub with some pretty dissolute friends, and the young man being attracted to that sort of wildness even though he’s going to have to become king when his father dies, and his father watching this with growing depression, with growing upset. The play really is about a young man developing and the relationship with his father and with his friends. In the play you tend to concentrate on Hal and Falstaff, who are the brightest characters. The father, the king, is this sort of boring old chap who mutters on and wants him to be a better son, but you don’t get inside the intricacies of the father’s mind in quite the same way. I think on film it was a much more attractive character for me to play than it would have been on stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the key to getting right, or where do people often go wrong in trying to capture Shakespeare?

JEREMY IRONS: I think you’ve got to have a facility with the language. You’ve got to know the language and be used to speaking it in such way that it can almost sound colloquial to an audience. You’ve got to get inside that to find out where the character is, what he’s feeling, because that’s what you want to transmit to the audience through the words. I think often the words in a way get in the way, whereas they should enlarge the understanding for the audience, but sometimes they just put them off. I suppose as an actor what you do is you look at the text rather like you might look at crossword clues to find out what those clues tell you about the truth of how the person is feeling. So it probably needs more research, more work before you perform than some writers.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that comes through in that film is that the idea of the theater as a place where people got their history and their news of the day, even though these plays weren’t necessarily all that accurate.

JEREMY IRONS: Yeah, it was the way certainly to transmit ideas, and Shakespeare is often more interested in transmitting emotions and ideas and often domestic situations, relationships, emotional relationships. A classic example is “Antony and Cleopatra,” which is set in Egypt with the great Antony, the great Roman general, the queen of the Nile Cleopatra, but it’s not really about that. It’s about a failing and fading relationship between two older people. That’s really what it’s about, but set against this rather romantic and glorious and historical background. What, of course, the documentaries do is to open up and I hope demystify for the audience these plays, to show them what Shakespeare was drawing on, the situation that existed when the plays were first played, and what people cared about, why he was writing them, where his source material was coming from. I think so many people met Shakespeare at school where maybe it was taught rather badly —

JEFFREY BROWN: Forced on them, right?

JEREMY IRONS: Forced on them, that’s right. And they have a bit of a block about it. And what we hoped that “Shakespeare Uncovered” would do is to remove that block, to open it, to open the windows, let the air into these plays, so that when they came to see them later in the year — when I hope maybe the documentaries will be repeated just to remind people — they would make it far easier for them to become really emotionally involved in the stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you finally about yourself as an actor. I’m now one of the people following “The Borgias,” which looks like great fun for you.

JEREMY IRONS: People keep telling me that: It looks like great fun for you. I hope that’s not a criticism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, not at all. But I’m wondering how you pick roles nowadays, whether it’s Shakespeare or the pope, the Borgia pope or whatever you are doing now. At this point in your life what sort of grabs you and makes you want to take on a role?

JEREMY IRONS: It’s always a gut feeling of appetite. Shakespeare is somebody I like to return to so often because he’s one of our greatest writers, if not our greatest. The Borgias I was very attracted to because it’s being written and produced by Neil Jordan, who is a filmmaker of note. I find that a lot of the best writing is happening on cable television in America, and many of the films that I would have been making are now very difficult to finance, and a lot of the talent that went into those films is now writing for television. In the old days if you were a film actor, you wouldn’t work on television. Now that’s not so, because actors have a great instinct for good writing and good stories. That’s where we go to work and that was one of the reasons I wanted to work on “The Borgias.” I thought it’s an extraordinary family, this Spanish family who comes to Rome two generations before, a very ambitious man. He becomes pope. Of course pope in those days was much more like a king than a pope, what we now think of as a pope. There were power struggles, there was a very different sort of morality. The more I read about the family and about the man, I thought this is extraordinary, because a lot doesn’t add up. Let’s try and find out how he got the reputation he did, how this family got the reputation it did in history.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well the PBS series is titled “Shakespeare Uncovered.” Jeremy Irons, thanks so much for talking to us, nice to talk to you.

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