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DVD Review: Playing Shakespeare

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To anyone with a lively interest in William Shakespeare, be it a professional interest or a personal one, I cannot recommend anything as an educational resource more than the Playing Shakespeare DVD set.  It's manages to be accessible and engaging but also thorough and thought-provoking, providing a step-by-step approach to overcoming the toughest obstacles faced in "playing" Shakespearean theatre.

Playing Shakespeare originally aired as a nine-part television series hosted by John Barton, a respected figure in the theatre as well as academia, and the members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Many years later, several of these actors — Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, to name a few — have become household names in America both as film stars and accomplished Shakespearean actors.  Their participation in the series — as "students" in Barton's workshop — lends it a great deal of authority, not to mention a great dramatic flair.

The nine segments of the series focus on the various difficulties in presenting the works of Shakespeare to a modern audience.  Barton approaches the subject by effectively combining Shakespeare's the heightened, poetic style of Elizabethan drama with a naturalistic acting approach that's more familiar to the actors and the audience.  The inherent conflict between the two styles is in fact the subject of the first show.

Barton's approach to the problems presented in the series — such as the use of verse, how to approach a soliloquy, and the study of character — is well-thought out and quite helpful.  He makes the material interesting by keeping the actors committed to the truth of the moment, but also gives a lot of useful tips on how to manage the more unrealistic, or dated, aspects of Shakespearean drama.  The marriage of the two is a winning combination.

Barton is helped greatly by the great panel of actors he has at his disposal.  The episode devoted to a discussion of character is especially intriguing, as he talks to both Patrick Stewart and David Suchet about their interpretation of the character of Shylock, the evil Jewish moneylender from The Merchant of Venice.  Especially in recent years, actors and directors presenting the play have met with a good deal of controversy as well as some ethical quandaries.

Another great decision by Barton is not to spend too much time "directing," or making specific choices on character or presentation that aren't there in the text.  Instead, he spends his time fleshing out the thought process of the actors and exploring the specific challenges they and the director must face.  His advice is always sound and based in a keen knowledge of Shakespeare's works, his world and his poetry.

As a Shakespearean actor, I found the DVDs most enjoyable and informative, and I think the same would be true of anyone with a keen interest in the Bard.  I imagine, though, that they would also be a great tool for someone looking to bring Shakespeare into the classroom.  In an acting class, or even a high school English class, Barton's accessible approach to Shakespeare is enlightening, as he particularly focuses on those aspects of Elizabethan drama (soliloquies, poetry, metaphor, imagery, antithesis) that a modern audience tends to struggle with the most.  The neat separation of the series into segments, not to mention its star power, would make it a useful and practical discussion piece for any educator.

In short, I must say that I greatly enjoyed Playing Shakespeare and give it my strongest recommendation.  If nothing else, you at least get to see Captain Picard and Monsieur Poirot take turns playing Shylock.  What more could a Shakespeare enthusiast ask for?

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About Aaron Whitehead