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DVD Review: Playing Shakespeare

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PBS series Playing Shakespeare will debut on home video June 2nd—and this series is a gem for theatre professionals and armchair enthusiasts alike. Shakespeare’s plays offer directors and actors rich opportunities to bring the dense figurative language to life—but without a thorough understanding of how the playwright used language to guide his actors through a play, there are equal opportunities to miss the mark. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s associate director John Barton is just the man to explain and explore the Bard’s use of blank verse as a technical as much as poetic guide to performance. His very specific hands on demonstration of how to take apart a text will not only help a student of Shakespeare, his approach will benefit any student of acting—and is equally fascinating for an enthusiastic theatre buff like me, who loved the opportunity to have a peek at the rehearsal process with a great director and some of the RSC’s most talented actors.

The series of nine intimate acting workshops played on PBS in the mid-1980s, led by Barton, who at the time had over 35 years experience directing over 50 plays and leading workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company (he is still, at age 77, an advisory director). The legendary director was first an academic at Cambridge University and his approach incorporates both a close reading of the text and a commonsense appreciation of how that reading informs performance choices. His key word is “balance,” as he suggests modern actors have to find a balance between Shakespeare’s acting tradition and a more modern naturalistic style.

Playing Shakespeare cover artBarton believes the way to do that is to notice what Shakespeare was doing with his language, so the actor knows where to stop and ask what the intention of a line may be. Shakespeare’s actors had to mount a play in approximately three days, so he had to embed stage directions into the text for ease of learning. Barton does not advocate there being only one correct interpretation of any part or speech. Instead, he says that there are places in the text where an actor must ask himself questions and the exploration of those questions will inevitably guide him to his own interpretation.

This approach may sound very worthy but just a touch dry to watch, but in fact it is fascinating. Barton has the confidence to laugh at himself by showing a skit with Stephen Fry (Kingdom) and Hugh Laurie (House) called "Shakespeare Master Class," made all the more hilarious by how effectively it spoofs his own style. However, his classes are just as effective and easily withstand the send up. Barton gathered for the classes a who’s who of acting luminaries from the RSC at the time, most of whom have gone on to achieve international fame since. Part of the enjoyment of the series is bringing together people like Ian McKellan (Lord of the Rings), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Judi Dench (Quantum of Solace), and David Suchet (Agatha Christie: Poirot) and watching them interact with each other and Barton. Barton encourages questions and comments from the actors, and we get a sense of their different personalities and approaches.

One of the highlights of the series is when Barton has Patrick Stewart and David Suchet, both of whom played Shylock for him in different productions, take the same scenes, ask the same questions about Shakespeare’s intentions at the same points and come up with very different interpretations. But there are many highlights: I particularly enjoyed watching Ian McKellan take one rather ordinary line and find different ways to deliver it according to the mood Barton specifies. A scene from Twelfth Night with Judi Dench and Richard Pasco is a revelation. Even such talented actors as these start with a rather pedestrian cold read (Pasco more so than Dench) and through Barton pointing out stresses in the verse and pauses from shorter lines, bring the scene to sparkling life. These are master classes, indeed.

Playing Shakespeare is one of the first releases from Athena and at $79.99 is very affordable. The boxed set is attractively packaged with nine episodes on four CDs. The videos occasionally have a few brief tracking issues, though nothing that interrupts the enjoyment of watching the classes. The audio is excellent. The set comes with a 20 page viewer’s guide, including a history of the RSC and actor biographies. I can’t recommend Playing Shakespeare highly enough, not just for actors, but for anyone interested in the theatre. The series is a classic.

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