Monday, May 5, 2008

Cultural Note 1: Why you should watch I, Claudius

Just like everyone else, I watched Rome on HBO. It was good fun, like a well made popcorn movie such as the Bourne Identity. I, Claudius is something different entirely. It has very much a theatre feel to it. Very stagey. The actors are all veteran theater actors. Whereas only Ciarán Hinds as Julius and especially James Purefoy as Marc Antony really put on command performances in the HBO series, there are many in I, Claudius. I do understand that they are not exactly comparable. The historical arc of Claudius is broader and longer than Rome, but they are still of a kind and I need a contemporary comparison to put into perspective how spectacular I, Claudius really was.

I, Claudius was besotted with great performances beginning with the great classical actor Derek Jacobi as Claudius. My favorite, and a scene stealer extraordinaire, was Siân Phillips as Livia. Astonishingly brutal, perfectly poised and impossible to take your eyes off of, she is more than just a villan, she may be the savior of Rome, it is hard to tell. She is certainly convinced of it, but like the Clintons, she thinks that only she has the answers, and so eliminates everyone in her way. A sort of sociopathology that is fascinating and terrifying all at once. Then there are the young lions of the stage, John Rhys-Davies, Patrick Stewart, and a poisonous John Hurt as Caligula.

Almost every performance is pitch-perfect and true acting in the sense that doesn’t exist very much anymore. I can imagine that some folks might be initially put off by the stagey-ness, but if you give it a chance you will become completely engrossed. This will be the first time I see the show/movie and then read the book.

The only gripe is that the DVD transfer wasn’t great (Criterion Collection, please) for sound.

A piece of dramatic art presented as television. I already feel like I need to watch it again, I’m going through withdrawal. This is Fucking-A awesome and vlm approved.

7 comments:

Cliff said...

Shit! Le me get through with the Wire first!!

Seriously, this sounds great.

the vlm said...

Well, you definitely need to finish the Wire. I, Claudius is totally different in some respects, though, as David Simon has said, the Wire is a Greek tragedy more than Shakespearian. In that sense, maybe the two are linked.

Can't wait for the Wire Season 5. Don't have cable, so I'm waiting on DVDs...

Lyle Fass said...

The book is on my reading list for the year. Sitting on my bookshelf now. Will watch it after book.

Wire season five is just incredible.

Jello4 said...

Livia was always my fave, too. In my first groupie act, I chose that as my Latin name for Latin class in the seventh grade, based on this series.

Susannah

Susan said...

Thanks for your warm commentary on "I,Claudius". I'm old enough to have seen it the first time around on public television and the production has remained memorable all these years later (I still have the seriously degraded VCR tapes). I did enjoy "Rome" almost as much because that period in history is so fascinating. As to "The Wire" -- it's in a class by itself. For pure Shakespearean rhythm of language I also recommend "Deadwood". For poetic turn of phrase (in spite of the cursing), you can't surpass it.

E.Wurzel said...

I still remember being engrossed in the series as a kid in England when it first came out. I watched it all again with my wife on DVD a few years back and what did strike me was how brilliantly it was acted. The stage-like feel to it was a shock at first, but then all BBC Drama in the 70s felt stagey, but it's the acting that draws you in so you don't notice it after a while. Brian Blessed's Augustus' death scene particularly impressed on re-seeing.

John said...

The Secret History by Procopius is another favorite. It covers Justinian like the National Enquirer would have, if it were around in the year 500. Belisarius, written by the same Wilson as I, Claudius is a show stopper too.