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.