In most cases, a director of a Shakespeare play would ask Jeremy Irons to get into character.
When Irons signed on to host an instalment of the documentary series Shakespeare Uncovered, however, the director told the actor to get into a boat and onto a horse.
That's because the six-part PBS series, which premières with back-to-back episodes on Friday at 8:30 p.m. (on Prairie Public TV), concerns itself with more than the playwright's words on the printed page. It also seeks to give viewers a much closer look at the places, people and events that inspired Shakespeare's greatest plays.
In the case of the episode hosted by Irons -- the series' fourth (airing Feb. 1), focused on Henry IV and Henry V -- that meant taking a horseback ride across the historic Agincourt battlefield in northern France, and steering a rowboat across the Thames River in London, while explaining how Shakespeare and his company, in the midst of a dispute with their landlord, dismantled his theatre and transported it, piece by piece, to be rebuilt on the opposite bank of the river.
It's a new perspective on some very old plays that Irons found impossible to resist.
"It was while I was in the middle of shooting (a film version of) Henry IV that there was a knock on the trailer door, and in came (series producer) Richard (Denton)," Irons explained last week during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "And he said, 'Would you like to make a documentary about these plays?' And I said, 'Oh, that may be interesting if we can find the time. What do you want to do?' And he said, 'Well, I want to put you in a boat. I want to put you on a horse. I want to take you to Agincourt.' And I said, 'This sounds very interesting.'"
Indeed, "interesting" only begins to describe Shakespeare Uncovered, which opens on Friday with American actor Ethan Hawke's exploration of Macbeth and British actress Joely Richardson's examination of the Bard's comedies.
Feb. 1's two-part instalment also has Derek Jacobi hosting an episode focused on Richard II; the series concludes on Feb. 8 with David Tennant's look at Hamlet and Trevor Nunn's assessment of King Lear.
Each chapter of Shakespeare Uncovered combines performance clips from the plays -- plucked from decades of film, TV and stage productions and featuring a veritable who's who of the board-treading set -- with historical details, academic discussion and some fascinating perspectives from the actors about the challenges and joys of performing Shakespeare.
In discussing his involvement, Irons, 64 -- a 1991 Oscar winner for Reversal of Fortune who is currently seen in the historical TV drama The Borgias -- said he appreciates Shakespeare's bold exploration of historical tales, but what really impresses him is the timelessness of the themes that lie beneath all the dramatic scheming and royal skullduggery.
"Why Shakespeare still works -- not just still works, but actually why Shakespeare shines as the greatest dramatist of all time -- is that he was writing about human condition, whether it be the comedies or the tragedies or the historical plays," Irons says. "Always, it's about the specific thing of jealousy or of envy or of unrequited love or of a relationship between family members. It's something which hasn't changed. So when we see those plays now, they still speak to us with a resonance that many hundreds of plays written between Shakespeare's time and today don't."
And when he mentioned other "plays," Irons apparently meant that all forms of subsequent scripted entertainment pale in comparison to the works of Shakespeare -- including, it seems, PBS's current Brit-import crowd-pleaser.
"What I'm very excited about with Shakespeare Uncovered ... is (that) you see some of the best British actors playing Shakespeare, and what it can do to open up to this huge American audience this gold dust," he said. "Show them that, actually, television doesn't end with Downton Abbey. If you think that's good, then watch these Shakespeare productions, and you'll see what real writing, what real stories, what real characters are about."
At this point, you could heart the heartbeats of every PBS executive and publicist in the room accelerate. Producer Denton tried to jostle Irons toward a retraction of his Downton diss, but the actor wasn't quite finished with being mischievous.
"But we do love Downton Abbey," Denton said.
"Yes, we do love Downton Abbey," Irons submitted, but then followed with, "I don't know your (American) cars well enough, but you know, it's like a Ford Fiesta will get you there and give you a good time. But an Aston Martin... that's what you've got with Shakespeare."
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Featuring Jeremy Irons, Ethan Hawke and Joely Richardson
Friday at 8:30 p.m.