Coaxed from plain white stage to silvery screen

I was 15 and as impressionable as a piece of dough when Peter Brook’s RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream burned itself into my memory. The play’s magic came to miraculous life on Brook’s famous “white box” stage, with trapezes, spinning plates, stilts and a giant ostrich feather contextualising the exquisite verse.

Peter Brook’s 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. John Kane, Sara Kestelman and Alan Howard. Photo: Reg Wilson © RSC. Top: John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape. Photo: Anthony Woods/Beckett on Film.

There’s no film of that production (just some YouTube snippets:, as there aren’t of such marvels as Gordon Chater in Steve J Spears The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin, John Bell’s Nimrod Much Ado About Nothing, Neil Armfield’s Belvoir Cloudstreet or Damien Ryan’s Sport for Jove Antigone. But watching the many treasures that can be seen on screen may help make you match-fit as green shoots reappear in our theatres.

If we can’t see Brook’s Dream, we can see his RSC production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade (, which, filmed as if on stage in 1967, remains ambitious, confronting, combative and theatrical. The patrician Ian Richardson is almost unrecognisable as Marat, and Patrick Magee is a compelling de Sade. Glenda Jackson impales you to your chair with Charlotte Corday’s distressing nightmares about la Guillotine, and among countless theatrical coups she lashes de Sade’s back with her hair by way of a stylised whipping. Weiss’s brilliant play points to the tendency for revolutions to replace tyranny with tyranny.

Helen Mirren as Titania in Moshinsky’s Dream. Courtesy BBC.

Elijah Moshinsky’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while not matching Brook’s pinnacle, is among the best of the BBC’s wildly uneven complete Shakespeare series made in the early ’80s (avoid the Antony and Cleopatra like the plague), all filmed as though on stage. This Dream makes the lyrical verse dance, with Helen Mirren’s turbulent Titania surrounded by a sea of improbable fairy faces in scenes like pre-Raphaelite paintings. Cherith Mellor is a hilarious, rubber-mouthed Helena, and Bottom’s transformation and Titania’s love for him mixes grotesqueness, wonder, beauty and humour in equal measure, as love is made a game in which fickleness is skewered with satire.

In 1965 Olivier, unable to fund a movie of Othello, settled for filming it on stage, with himself in the lead (on DVD). While he was too old for the role (as Maggie Smith was for Desdemona), the flawless Frank Finlay’s deceptively affable Iago oils the hinges. Olivier’s lowered voice sounds like a resonant bassoon, and Smith is at her pitiable best in the death scene, where Olivier’s misguided tempestuousness is shattering. Joyce Redman lends Amelia dazzling vivacity throughout, and Derek Jakobi and Michael Gambon make their screen debuts.

Where many wrestle to make Shakespeare’s comedies work, the Globe’s live Twelfth Night ( simply lets the play be its amusing self, while the actors expertly juggle live projection with not making their on-screen performances too big. In an Elizabethan-style all-male cast, Mark Rylance’s vocal and physical acting offer a finely-observed character realisation of Olivia, without the least hint of a drag act. Stephen Fry’s Malvolio is genuinely funny (rather than hammy), and Peter Hamilton Dyer is a sharp and likable Fool. It’s worth the three-hour-ride.

Two Parisian buskers miming in slow motion gave Steven Berkoff the key to unlocking Oscar Wilde’s most challenging play, Salome, and making it truly ravishing theatre. Slowing the movement allowed for a similar tempo in delivering the text, so every syllable could be savoured of a poeticism so diaphanously beautiful that the words seem to tear as they are spoken (“She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver”).

With much of the imagery moon-related, the cast’s white faces create a moonlit effect, while the women’s art-deco costumes (including the spectacular creation Herodias wears) compound the facade of elegance, and the droplets of live piano are like stones plopping into a still pond. Most of the actors’ movements are balletic, contrasting with Mark Lewis’s robust, zealous and dangerously self-righteous Jokanaan, who jolts the graceful, slo-mo aesthetic out of its orbit when he speaks. But Berkoff’s production (filmed live, available on DVD) is not just an aesthetic experience: it’s a fantasia on desire in which the stakes keep rising. Naraboth’s mimed suicide is agonising, as is the disturbing adoration of Jokanaan’s decapitated head by Salome (Myriam Cyr).

Patrick Garland’s Brief Lives remains, 41 years later, among the most extraordinary nights I’ve spent in a theatre. Although the low-res YouTube version ( is hard work (there’s also a DVD), it remains a must-see, its outrageous wit contained on a wondrous set-design. Roy Dotrice, the lone actor, is breathtaking as the decrepit John Aubry, whom he played over 1700 times. The ABC filmed it here at the conclusion of its world tour.

The Dustin Hoffman-starring Death of a Statesman ( was not a stage production, but, beyond the opening sequence, it’s shot that way. Hoffman’s Willie Loman is worn down like a stone step on the stairway to glory. The low man condemned to equate living with excelling, he stumbles between triumphant fantasies and a bottomless chasm of self-awareness, so every optimistic dream’s another nail in his coffin. In a heartbreaking performance, Hoffman’s lips sometimes quiver with the words before they’re framed as sounds.

Kate Reid’s Linda, his wife, is a limitless fount of compassion – a quality that largely bypassed the genes of their younger son, Happy (Stephen Lang), while John Malkovich is striking as the conflicted Biff, and Charles Durning is convincing as the Loman’s neighbour, Charley, endlessly rebuffed by Willie’s destructive pride.

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days offers considerable to scope to the actor playing Winnie, despite being buried to her waist in the first act and her neck in the second. She must infuse the play with an extraordinary warmth of humanity, and Irene Worth gives every scrap of her soul in providing it for David Heeley’s 30-year-old New York Shakespeare Festival production. In fact the play almost works better on film, because her face can fill the screen in Act Two. All the while you know she’s screaming behind the smile, and when she finally cries for help, it’s excruciating. George Voskovec gives a comparatively overstated performance as Willie, and the pacing could have been quicker – as Rosaleen Linehan’s performance in the Beckett on Film series shows.

A particular gem in that Beckett on Film DVD treasure-trove is John Hurt in the one-hander Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Atom Egoyan. The daring pace is established by Hurt’s being on screen for fully eight-and-a-half minutes before saying a word, and the black humour is swathed in regret, nostalgia and self-obsession, as revealed in the taped diaries to which Krapp listens. The constants are his ill-health, fierce intellect, cynicism and determination not to confront his darkest emotional wounds. When he listens to the recollection of being in a boat with a woman who stole his heart, Hurt’s usually inscrutable face is etched with impossibly deep crags of sadness, before he drops his head on to the tape-player, and caresses it as if it’s her. Like Winnie’s cry, it’s almost unendurable.