Playing Shakespeare [DVD]
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A series of Shakespeare masterclasses filmed for television in 1982, featuring some of the finest actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Judi Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley and Sinead Cusack.
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Playing Shakespeare is a collection of 9 filmed workshops at the RSC, led by co-founder John Barton. His disciples are all professional actors- you'll see many a famous face, from Patrick Stewart to Judi Dench to Peggy Ashcroft in the last episode.
The acting advice John Barton gives is simple but vital. The difference it makes in the quality of the performances of the actors is infinite. His focus on the text and the nuances of each word may seem unfashionable now when interpretation and subversion seem to be the main goal, yet it makes long, often dull speeches (like the Bishop of Canterbury's one in Henry V) seem exciting and accessible. Barton is very picky but the actors are always humble and even challenge him on some points, which he rightly accepts.
What I really love about the series, apart from some brilliant pieces of acting, as in the final scene of The Winter's Tale, is the metatheatrical quality of it. The filming emphasises the artificiality- we see mics swinging over, the cameras switching. The "set" is a ramshackle studio and the actors are often playing scenes to a rug. It's a mix of rehearsed reading and performing, all led by Barton, who is not a posturing luvvie. He's more like a cuddly old-school history teacher, with a baggy cardigan, a woolly tie, and a bit podgy.
As well as the personality of Barton, we also see the personalities of the actors emerging. There are the shyer ones, like Ben Kingsley, the favourite pupil, like Patrick Stewart, or the knowledgeable old soul that is Ian McKellan. The actors have all had varying amounts of experience with the RSC and some have even played the parts professionally that they demonstrate for us in the workshop, such as Patrick Stewart and David Suchet's rival versions of Shylock. Even those who seem to have been there for a shorter time, like Lisa Harrow and Sheila Hancock, give marvellous performances.
This is a must buy if you are a fan of any of the actors in the series (there are 21, but they rotate around so we don't get the same person every time), or a fan of Shakespeare or indeed a fan of acting.
When I accidentally saw the programme, the first actor I saw was Kevin Kline performing Hamlet's famous speech and he seemed to do it to perfection. Barton thought otherwise although everything he said was positive as he gave Kline fresh approaches to the familiar lines. The next performance was so different it amazed line and the assembled group. Barton does not look like someone who should be giving masterclasses, dressed as he usually is in an ill-fitting jumper, two sizes too big, with pockets used to carrying the complete works. He obviously does not care and, after a few minutes, viewers will not either.
It is recommended to anyone with a serious interest in reading or performing Shakespeare. It is not light viewing; the actors and Barton are seriously exploring ways to perform the plays, looking for sophisticated nuances and subtle differences in how to say these famous lines.
imposes his view on actors who (in my opinion) are easily capable of interpreting the text themselves. Barton is a Shakespeare afficionado extraordinaire and his work with the actors reveals and expresses every nuance and inflection of Shakespere's verse. His exposition of the King Lear speech, 'Blow winds, and crack your cheeks' finally makes the rant bearable. His examples of how gentleness compells more than going all-out on a text, are a relevation
Judy Dench is staggering and it is no mystery why she is the grande dame of UK theatre
today. But then so are Ian McKellan, David Suchet and Ben Kinsley. Their renditions
of the speeches are insightful, compelling, moving and memorable. Indeed all the actors in the Ensemble are outstanding. In the end I preferred listening to them than to Barton.
But you can't have one without the other.
Anyone who wants a dose of Shakespeare in depth should see this series. It is intelligent, insightful and marvellous to listen to and to watch. You will also come to realise just how serious, committed and hard-working these actors are. There is nothing diletante or superficial, they get to the heart of the speeches and peel back the verse to show every
possible interpretation of it.
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