Shakespeare Uncovered, on PBS stations on Fridays (check local listings) has Jeremy Irons, right, discussing “Henry IV” and “Henry V” with Dominic Dromgoole of the Globe Theater.
The new season of “Smash,” NBC’s flashy, trashy backstage melodrama, will be starting soon, so theater types will probably be devoting most of their free time to watching it and chattering about it. But beginning on Friday, another theater-themed series is also available over on PBS — not as sexy, perhaps, but more enlightening.
It’s called “Shakespeare Uncovered,” and it features tours of some of Shakespeare’s greatest works, conducted by noted actors and directors. If these hosts did nothing more than explain the plays — which they do, an A-list sort of CliffsNotes — this would be an engaging series.
But of course they do more, talking about how the works have been interpreted over the years and the challenges of performing and directing the central roles. Sure, the hourlong programs feel a bit like something high school teachers or college professors might show classes when they didn’t feel like working, but those classes at least would come away with a decent 60 minutes’ worth of knowledge.
Each installment of this six-part series has a different guide, and the group — Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Joely Richardson and David Tennant — includes both young guns and old masters. They bring varying styles to the tutorial task. Mr. Hawke is first, with “Macbeth,” going for a tone of reverence mixed with a seeker’s curiosity. It may be hard to believe that he doesn’t know what the word “murther” means in the text — at one point he asks the veteran actor Richard Easton to explain it for him — but his awe at being allowed to read from a First Folio at the Morgan Library & Museum seems genuine.
After Ms. Richardson explores some of the comedies in an installment also being broadcast on Friday, Mr. Jacobi arrives a week hence with appropriate heft when he tackles “Richard II.” All of the hosts make efforts to proclaim Shakespeare’s relevance to modern times, but Mr. Jacobi is particularly direct, comparing “Richard II” to the ouster of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s prime minister in 1990. He also dives into the eternal debate, saying that he believes someone other than Shakespeare actually wrote the Shakespeare plays. And he tells you who he thinks it was.
Mr. Irons is a formidable guide through “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” an episode paired with Mr. Jacobi’s next Friday, and Mr. Nunn brings his directorial knowledge to “The Tempest” on Feb. 8.
But perhaps the most entertaining installment of all is Mr. Tennant’s, scheduled along with Mr. Nunn’s. His subject is the weighty “Hamlet” — he has played the title role with the Royal Shakespeare Company — but he leavens it with occasional cheekiness, as when he takes a tour of the “Hamlet” paraphernalia at the Royal Shakespeare Company gift shop. At one point he pauses to flip through a manga version of the story.
“Hamlet seems to be dressed as a sort of androgynous superhero,” he notes, then adds in deadpan actor-speak, “It’s a choice.”
On PBS stations on Friday nights (check local listings).
Produced by Blakeway Productions, 116 Films and Thirteen in association with Shakespeare’s Globe. Richard Denton, producer; Bill O’Donnell, series producer; Stephen Segaller and David Horn, executive producers for Thirteen; Fiona Stourton, executive producer for Blakeway.