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RAILear3It being the week it is, the telly is abuzz with Shakespearean fervour – which is very good, since it gives one the chance to watch or re-watch more theatre than is usual in my corner of the world.

Last night, for instance, I came home from a reading with the Squirrels to find my mother had recorded for me an old Italian production of King Lear – and I mean “old” as in 1960…

Feeling I hadn’t had enough Shakespeare for one night, I set to watch it, curious to see what they’d make of Lear, and also, truth be told, a little wary: I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and… well. Back then RAI, the Italian Television, was much keener on theatre than it is nowadays. Watching the play (and, before that, listening to the play on the radio) was quite the family ritual for many Italians. On play nights my grandmother timed dinner so that everything would be finished in time for Pirandello, Shakespeare, Molière, Hugo or whatever the RAI provided – unless it was Greek tragedy, which my grandfather – otherwise another avid theatre-lover – could and would not stand.

So there are quite a few of these old black-and-white productions, and… let us say that they reflect the playing conventions of the time, but also (starting with the early Sixties) a sense that television should offer a different, aesthetically more modern take on things. Add in what had to be comparatively strained means, and you have a combination of very classical acting, sedate pace and Spartan production values… Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – and this is why I was wary of last night’s Lear.

RAILearIn the end it was a rather mixed affair, I must say. The translation sounded somewhat bland, Salvo Randone was quite good as the eponymous King, though he overdid the madness scenes a little, and Nando Gazzolo‘s golden voice is always a joy to hear, but I wish they’d cast him as Edmund instead of Edgar…  Edmund who, I might add, was pruned into a flat and unredeemed villain.  The rest of the cast was rather forgettable, alas, and Sandro Bolchi’s direction… I don’t know. Stately to the point of stiffness, a little didactic, very given to close-ups of each speaking character, flat-looking in the stark lights. I wonder whether it might have looked better on the stage, with different lighting and the audience free to see the interaction between the characters… Also, the costumes, armour and props that might have looked good from a distance, didn’t take well to close-ups.

On the whole, though, it was just this in-between quality that made it fascinating: to see the struggle to mediate between different languages, the effort to translate stage-work to the means of television. I can quite see how it would keep all Italy glued to the screen back then, and also just why it appears terribly naïve now.