Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Re-imagining Classics

I came by today’s topic from two different directions, and with very different feelings on each one. My wife and I have been having discussions about stagings of various operas we’ve seen lately, and bemoaning the fact that many of them just do not work. Case in point was the production of Rigoletto that I wrote about several months ago (sorry, I can’t put my finger on it at the moment). The one set they used was jaw-dropping, but the problem was that it didn’t work for several scenes. If one didn’t know the opera well, it would have been nearly impossible to figure out where the action was supposed to be taking place.

The issue is that stage directors and set designers always seem to want to do something fresh with these older operas. Opera lovers would yell and scream, stamping their little feet, if someone started messing around with the music, so what else is left? The staging, of course. Sometimes the results are unintentionally hilarious, like the production of Wagner’s Ring that took place in a post-apocalyptic subway. Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met this season elicited strong “boos” at its performances.

To sum up, re-imagining classics often doesn’t work. But this post has a dual-thrust as I mentioned in the opening paragraph.

My son recently loaned us discs of the new BBC re-look at Sherlock Holmes set in our current world. Called just Sherlock, stripped away are many of the trappings of the original stories and they’re replaced by some pretty thought-provoking details that Conan Doyle only slightly hinted at. The results are, in a word, brilliant.

I have to say I came to the series preparing to be thoroughly underwhelmed. After the Jeremy Brett series in the ’80s, I figured the bar had been set impossibly high. Sure the Robert Downey Jr/Jude Law movies have been entertaining, but they really aren’t anything all that special. Sherlock is.

First of all, the acting is first-rate from top to bottom, especially the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (soon to be appearing as Bilbo Baggins!). Rupert Graves is DI Greg Lestrade and the character is played as an exasperated cop whom at wit’s end is forced to call in Holmes.

Holmes is still a “consulting detective” and Watson is still an army doctor recently returned from Afghanistan (lucky, that), but they have been thoroughly “modernized”. Holmes has a website called “The Art of Detection” and Watson’s stories about Holmes appear on his blog. They Twitter, they Facebook and they text like mad, cell phones and computers are everywhere, as they should be, because Holmes would have made great use of the new media. Oh, and now Jim Moriarity is a “consulting criminal”.

And it all works! The dialogue goes like stink, is sharp and witty. The camera work is brilliant, and the whole production just cheeky enough towards The Canon that someone like me, who thinks the whole Cult of Sherlock Holmes is a bit ridiculous, can have some honest chuckles in that direction.

The first show in the series, “A Study in Pink”, had my jaw on the floor and the show went up from there. For those of us who write, the DVD set also comes with the original 60-minute pilot of the same episode shot before BBC decided they wanted 90-minute productions. It is intensely interesting to note how the script changed, the production values moved ahead, and with a different director, how the whole story was re-imagined. Both work – and work well. Why? Because someone thought about this a lot and didn’t push the concept past where it would stop working so well.

Certain opera directors and production designers should take note.


Vicki Delany said...

I loved Sherlock, but I had one big beef. Hated Moriarty. He was like a giggling clown.

Rick Blechta said...

I thought he was quite chilling, maybe a bit overacted, but a complete psychotic rather than a brainiac, the way he's usually played.

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Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick, honey, so sorry. I loved the real Sherlock Holmes. The one on PBS. So I'm afraid my mind was closed to any variation.

Rick Blechta said...

So do I. We have the whole set and watch them with regularity. Jeremy Brett was incredible and the surrounding cast always excellent. And after seeing Sherlock, I still enjoy it as much as ever.

If you can manage to steel yourself for a peek at the new series, I think you’ll find yourself impressed. I was, and I went in with very low expectations.

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If you can handle to metal yourself for a look at the new sequence, I think you will discover yourself satisfied. I was, and I went in with very low objectives..

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