Most of us at one point in our lives have been confronted with one of the plays of William Shakespeare. For the majority, our first and last experience has been struggling through the text in high school and never hearing or seeing the words taken from the page and brought to life on stage. If we were very lucky we may have had a teacher who was able to impart to us a sense of the beauty and the wonder of the text. However, for most of us it was an experience we only strove to survive before moving on to something a little more comprehensible, hoping the final exam wouldn't devote more than a question or two to the play.
Of course it's the language that defeats most people — the strange vocabulary, the different cadences, and of course the fact that it all appears to be poetry of some kind or another. Reading it aloud, let along acting it out, is more of a challenge than most of us are willing to attempt. Yet if ever you have the good fortune to see one of Shakespeare's plays performed by those who know what they are doing it all of a sudden makes sense. What was close to incomprehensible on the page is miraculously understandable on stage. How, you may wonder, did it undergo such a remarkable transformation? What magic formulae did the actors and director follow to turn gibberish into English?
Well according to Playing Shakespeare, a nine-part television series that first aired in 1984 and is now available as a four-DVD box set from Athena (a division of Acorn Media), there is no set answer as to how best perform Shakespeare. In a series of master class workshops, John Barton, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespearean Company (RSC) of England and members of the company at the time, including Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Peggy Ashcroft, and others, explore everything from the difficulties of marrying modern acting styles to plays written for Elizabethan actors and the mysteries of iambic pentameter to how to best perform soliloquies. With Barton introducing each segment, and then leading his actors through examples of the topic under discussion, we are given remarkable insight into not only the works of Shakespeare, but the work involved in an actor preparing for a performance.
For each segment Barton calls upon his actors to attempt various ways of doing the same scene in order to illustrate the point he's trying to make. For example, in the segment on soliloquies one of the points under discussion is whether it's better for the actor to directly address the audience or to conduct the speech as an interior monologue. Which way, Barton wants to know, will hold an audience's attention more? He has the actors first try the speech in the latter way, and then he stops them and has them address the audience directly. The difference is immediately noticeable, for when the actor speaks his or her speech directly to us we hang on to their words and are pulled into the story far more deeply than when he or she directed the speech inwards.
If there is one element that Barton constantly comes back to throughout the whole series, it's the importance of maintaining the audience's interest in the proceedings. While that might sound so obvious to be laughable, with something like Shakespeare, where it so easy for an actor or an audience to get caught up in the language and get lost, it's not as easily accomplished as you might think. Here again Barton has his actors experiment with performing the pieces in two ways. First to latch onto the overall emotion of a scene or speech and simply play that while ignoring any individual nuances that might be found in the text. Then they reverse the process and break the scene or speech down into its component parts so we hear more than just the one emotion, but all the little bits and pieces of thoughts that have gone into creating that emotion.
It turned out that neither extreme was completely satisfying. For although the latter was more interesting to listen to, and would pull the audience more into the story, it lacked the passion and excitement of the former. In there is the key that Barton thinks leads to creating a Shakespearean production for a modern audience — balance. A contemporary actor must balance the needs of a script that was written to be played in the open air in a highly stylized manner with the modern day audience's need for realism on stage. He or she must be able to transmit the heightened emotions called for by the language while at the same time ensuring the meanings of individual lines aren't swept away in a sea of passion.
Anybody who has the slightest interest in Shakespeare and acting will find this series to be a riveting experience. It's not often you have the opportunity to watch actors actually rehearse and experiment as they prepare for a role, and in Playing Shakespeare you are able to watch some of the finest actors of our generation do just that. There is nothing staged about any of this either, as Barton will stop them, and ask them to try something again, but this time do it this way. What I found truly amazing was the apparent ease with which each of them were able to take his direction and do something completely different from what they had done previously.
However, by far the best thing this series does is make Shakespeare more accessible. Far too many people put him up on a pedestal and worship his work to the extent that they lose touch with the fact that it was written as popular entertainment in its day. They're full of sex, violence, coarse humour, and high passion, all of which should be as equally entertaining to today's audience as for the one for whom it was written. Barton and his actors bring Shakespeare back to a human level, but without sacrificing any of the magic and beauty of the language and the poetry inherit to the work the way many modern "realistic" productions do.
It doesn't matter if you've hated Shakespeare since high school, or loved his plays all your life — watching Playing Shakespeare will open your eyes and allow you to look on the material as if it were brand new. The program may be 25 years old, but the ideas it expresses and puts into action are just as fresh and exciting today as they were then. This is brilliant television and great theatre.