“Highbrow-lowbrow”. Laurence Olivier, attore shakespeariano sul piccolo schermo – Sara Pesce – Stratagemmi 24/25
Laurence Olivier’s two major Shakespearean T V interpretations (The Merchant of Venice, 1973; King Lear, 1984) revolve around the poles of body, morality, and psyche in ways that lead Shakespeare into different forms of contemporary melodrama. The actor’s capacity to combine popular imagery with ideas of class, distinction, and artistic power fit both in the commercial requirements and in the pedagogic ideal of British private television, producing a communication permeated by the ordinary rather than the exceptional. In the second half of the twentieth century, when Shakespeare’s dramas do
not pervade British and American cultural life as transversally as they used to in the previous century, television may offer a chance to render them familiar again. Nonetheless, Shakespearean adaptations fail to fulfill their broad mandate. If Shakespeare is established as “high culture”, his work can possibly reach the widest public through a romanticization of the poet. Such a process is achieved through the star’s seduction, that is, through a deceitful though pleasing relationship between spectator and celebrity. This fact is complicated and enhanced by the decline of Olivier’s classic stardom, which invites the spectator to a “minor encounter” with the actor. Challenging his own Apollinean composure, Olivier’s way of embodying aging characters evokes a crucial dilemma of postmodernity, its obsession with physical preservation, which in Shylock is interlaced with the theme of patrimony and in Lear with an exhibited bodily downfall. Here, Olivier’s genius powerfully re-activates communicative codes dwelling in the televisual palimpsest from the serials to the soap opera and the sit-coms, dramatizing the psychological and moral components of individual’s identity according to a principle of stylization and reducing the psychological distance between the viewer and the represented object: a fact characteristic of the ontology of the small screen.