Space man: the genius of Roman Polanski

A new retrospective of the Polish director's work begins in London.

Another decade, another Roman Polanski retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. (Though it was still called the National Film Theatre when the last one rolled around.) Since the previous season of his work in 2004, the director has made one earthy Dickens adaptation (Oliver Twist), one tremendously sly thriller (The Ghost) and Carnage, a rather flat, academic film of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage. He also spent a spell in prison and then under house arrest in 2009 and 2010 on historic rape charges  dating back to 1977. A thorough documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, examines the case and its ambiguities.

The first leg of the two-month season takes us up to the director’s 1979 Hardy adaptation, Tess. The strike rate diminishes somewhat beyond that point, but there is hardly a film in this initial stretch that you would want to miss, from his taut 1962 debut Knife in the Water through to the controlled nightmares of Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and their beautifully mounted comic cousin, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). The magnificent sunlit noir, Chinatown (1974), needs no extra praise here. But how about The Tenant (1976), Polanski’s once-reviled psychological thriller about the timid Trelkowski (played by the director himself), who is consumed by the spirit of his apartment’s not-quite-dead-yet previous inhabitant—has everyone cottoned on to its slippery magic by now?

It is astonishing, in this age of complex special effects, that the most effective moments in the movie were created in front of the camera, rather than in a post-production facility. The scene in which a feverish Trelkowski reaches from his sick-bed for a bottle of water, only to find that he cannot pick it up because it is only a photograph, gets a delighted gasp out of me each time I see it. Then there are the weird dimensions of the apartment, which make it appear that Trelkowski is shrinking. When I met him in 1999, Polanski drew diagrams on a restaurant napkin to explain to me how this effect was achieved. Then he spilt his coffee all over that lovely memento, and I tried to act like it didn’t matter.

I’ve always loved The Tenant but its brilliance was brought sharply into focus by the release in 2003 of The Pianist, Polanski’s extraordinary adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s wartime memoir. The director had long been renowned for his sinister and claustrophobic use of space, not least in his apartment trilogy: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant. But The Pianist is the unifying work which illuminates those preceding films, making them appear to be dry runs for an autobiography.

Polanski had spent decades wrestling with the idea of making a film that touched on his childhood experiences in the Cracow ghetto. In 1990, he turned down Steven Spielberg’s offer to direct Schindler’s List because the material was still too raw for him. Finally he confronted his pain on film by refracting it through the story of Szpilman’s struggle to survive as the Nazis swamped Warsaw. An archetypal Polanski hero, he is confined to one apartment and attic room after another, powerless to intervene in the atrocities he witnesses from his window. See the picture in close proximity to The Tenant and the parallels between the films, and between Trelkowksi and Szpilman, two innocents hounded and hunted in their own neighbourhoods, become mutually enriching.

I have a minor personal connection to The Pianist. Along with a couple of thousand other young men, I attended the open casting call in 2001 for the role of Szpilman. An advertisement had appeared in the national press inviting 1.77m-tall, “sensitive, vulnerable and charismatic” actors of vaguely Eastern European appearance to audition for the lead. I had no idea how many wildly differing varieties of 1.77m Eastern European men there could be (some of them Asian or Afro-Caribbean, and stretching above 1.82m) until I arrived at the Actors’ Centre on a chilly Saturday morning. Or rather, until I joined the end of a queue several streets away from the Actors’ Centre. We all stamped our feet in the cold and mulled over our chances. We wished each other good luck. Someone called out to no one in particular: “See you at the Oscars.” 

Six hours, several bunions and a mild case of frostbite later, I had my Polaroid taken, and was told by the casting director that I probably didn’t look Jewish enough for the part. “Oy vey!” I wanted to exclaim to her. “You might have told that to those former classmates who never missed a chance to malign my Mediterranean complexion under an all-purpose blanket of playground anti-Semitism.”

When Adrien Brody’s name was announced as the successful candidate some months later, there can be few among us 2,000-odd hopefuls who didn’t consider him a perfect fit. So fully does he inhabit Szpilman’s experience that the picture has no need to engineer our sympathy. The simple sight of Brody wasting away before our eyes, his initial haughtiness crumbling into humility, is distressing enough. (For most of the picture, the brim of his hat looks meatier than he does.)

Brody was already established as a striking, discerning actor. His face, long and thin as a violin, was capable of reflecting a profound anguish. Which is where Polanski came in. He gave Brody proper donkey-work to do. He had to shed 13kg from his already slender frame to play Szpilman, a concert pianist who managed through luck and perseverance to survive in occupied, shellshocked Warsaw after his family had been carted off to the gas chambers. Brody’s ordeal didn’t end with dropping a few waist-sizes. On set, Polanski had him lugging around dustbins full of Polish encyclopaedias. Think of all those consonants.

Then there was the loneliness. “Being on your own is one thing,” he told me after the film opened. “But when you’re embracing and encouraging this intense sadness, and you’re away from your loved ones with no end in sight, it can be very difficult. I knew it was going to be a tough process, but I wasn’t prepared for the psychological damage of being isolated. I had over a month and a half with no other actors there - just me and the crew in a room, six days a week, 16 hours a day. I would put earplugs in. Roman would communicate with the crew in Polish. I’d go sit in my trailer when we weren’t shooting, and play my keyboard. But I was always alone.”

Cue 2,000 acting hopefuls breathing a sigh of relief that their auditions counted for nought.

The Roman Polanski season runs at BFI Southbank until the end of February.

Putting pain on the screen: Roman Polanski (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.