‘Oi! You’re Bard!’ (3)

Having quickly put out a couple of celebratory ‘Shakespeare-plus-music’ postings last week — the second being about Shostakovich’s contribution to the Kozintsev King Lear of 1971 — I spent lunchtime today thinking up a posting for tonight that would discuss in a cautious way one or two things that always occur to me when I hear Shostakovich’s film music ‘in situ’. I was actually sitting at the computer an hour ago, and just about to start grabbing some images to use in the posting — when suddenly an email from my good pal Hugh pinged its way into a corner of my screen…

The result of this was that I instantly abandoned my original plan, and started to put together this present posting ‘against the clock’ — for reasons that will become apparent if you read on…

What Hugh’s email contained was the following message:

Guess what? The Kozintsev film of ‘Hamlet’ — with music by Shostakovich — is on BBC4 this evening at 22.45.

And, of course, he was dead right. A quick check online revealed the following…


Needless, perhaps, to say, my quick check also revealed that BBC Four hasn’t changed in the slightest since I last forced myself to look into what it was doing: the channel whose brand-new 2016-17 Service Licence still opens with the claim that —

BBC Four’s primary role is to reflect a range of UK and international arts, music and culture

— is tonight showing a total of eight programmes, no fewer than six of which don’t come within a mile of matching that description.

Still, we can come back to that another time (and believe me, we will!). Right now, tempus fugit, and all kinds of people within reach of the BBC’s TV signals and — better still! — its online ‘catch up’ service on the ‘BBC iPlayer’ (see here) need to decide whether they want to devote practically two-and-a-half hours of their time to watching this bit of Shakespeare as filmed in the old Soviet Union half a century ago. So here are three clips, chosen with due regard for Shostakovich’s contribution to the whole…

First, we have a scene in which Kozintsev uses the resources of cinema to let us witness a happening that, on Shakespeare’s small, static and logocentric stage, could only be verbally reported in the past tense: the moment where Hamlet, in a state of — is it really? — madness confronts Ophelia in her chamber…

Moving quickly on, we jump to my second clip — in which Innokenty  Smoktunovsky (1925-94) delivers Kozintsev’s ‘take’ on Pasternak’s translation of the ‘To be, or not to be’ speech. This clip is ‘Russian-only’, without subtitles — but that doesn’t matter at all, does it — because this is one of the most famous soliloquies in all English literature AND YOU KNOW IT BY HEART, DON’T YOU…?

And, thirdly, there’s the film’s treatment of what is always referred to as ‘the play within the play’ — since that’s precisely what it is. No, I’m not going to say anything that will spoil the newbie’s eventual experience of this (or any other) part of the story: I will simply reveal that this is the point where Prince Hamlet has the travelling players perform a murder scene in order that he and his friend Horatio can watch how the King reacts to seeing a regicide carried out in this particular way…

So, what do you think? Will you be watching the full feature on BBC Four in just a few hours’ time? Have I whetted your appetite sufficiently for you to want to explore another piece of ‘Soviet Shakespeare’ with a Shostakovich score…?

If I have — and even if I haven’t! — you might like to share this posting with any friends and acquaintances who could be interested, especially if they’d prefer to watch it on an actual TV rather than on a computer screen. But remember: time is pressing!


Nikita Sergeyevitch Khrushchev (1894-1971), photographed in 1963

And while you yourself are — perhaps — waiting for the film to start, you might care to ponder the fact that its original release in June 1964 meant that it went before the Soviet public in what were the final months of the Khrushchev premiership. (He was ousted in October, to be replaced by Brezhnev and Kosygin.) Nikita Khrushchev’s 11-year rule (as ‘First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’) had seen the USSR’s official ‘de-Stalinization’ and its  entry into an apparently less repressive era courtesy of the so-called ‘Khrushchev Thaw‘. This was the period in which Shostakovich composed the works from approximately Op. 93 (Symphony No. 10) to Op. 119 (The Execution of Stepan Razin); the score for Kozintsev’s Hamlet was Op. 116.

Of course, whatever the degree of cultural and intellectual ‘liberalisation’ that took place after the death of Stalin in March 1953, the fact remains that Soviet citizens still needed to be jolly careful what they said and wrote — for fear of attracting the attentions of a controlling, paranoid ‘surveillance state’ — and also had to manage with a state-serving news media so completely under the control of un-transparent and unaccountable power that not a single word that emerged as print or broadcast news could be taken on trust.

bbcbadgeSo if you do watch the complete film this evening, you’ll know exactly how they felt


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