BluRay/DVD Reviews

PLAYING SHAKESPEARE

By • Jul 5th, 2009 •

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First seen on Television in the mid 80s, this boxed set of 4 discs covering 9 Episodes is a valuable and entertaining teaching tool for professional actors, acting students, teachers of acting, teachers of Shakespeare in schools and colleges, and anyone who loves Shakespeare in any context.

John Barton is an academic who, following in the footsteps of Dr. Bertram Joseph (Acting Shakespeare 1960), elucidates Shakespeare’s text to show actors how Shakespeare crafts into the verse hints and clues for the actor to seize upon and use in creating the characters as Shakespeare imagined them. After all, Shakespeare himself was an actor as well as play-write-in-residence at The Globe Theatre. Barton has a benign presence, and his love and enthusiasm for the work is contagious. The actors – some of whom are well known, others new to an American public – respond to direction and offer comment and observation from their own experience.

Each episode, set in a television studio as if in a rehearsal room, concentrates on a particular aspect of study and revelation: tradition, the iambic pentameter, using the verse, language and character, exploring a character, soliloquies, irony and ambiguity, passion and coolness, rehearsing the text, poetry and hidden poetry.

Throughout, Barton talks of finding the balance and fusion of poetry, truth and character. As the late, great Peggy Ashcroft remarks in the final episode: “You can appreciate a line, but it’s no good thinking you know how to say it until you’ve found the character. Only when we have found the character are we able to say the line as it should be said.”

Barton also emphasizes the Elizabethan relish for language, for the sounds of words as well as for their senses, for the very taste of them in the mouth. “Trippingly on the tongue” as Shakespeare himself says through Hamlet in the ‘advice to the players’, with instruction not to “tear a passion to tatters …for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”.

Although this is work in progress as if in rehearsal, there are also some memorable passages and scenes acted out more fully – Judi Dench (before she was a Dame) as Viola from “Twelfth Night”, Ben Kingsley exploring Brutus from “Julius Caesar”, Richard Pascoe new-minting Jacques’ famous “All the world’s a stage” from “As You Like It”, Patrick Stewart and David Suchet demonstrating different approaches to Shylock, Sinead Cusack revealing the intention behind Portia’s famous ‘purple passage’ “The quality of mercy is not strained” from “The Merchant of Venice”, Tony Church elucidating with wit and humour the Archbishop’s notorious Salic law speech from “Henry the Fifth”, Alan Howard as Henry the 6th, Michael Pennington as Hamlet, Sheila Handcock as Mistress Quickly telling of the death of Falstaff, Ian McKellan as a touching Justice Shallow.

What may particularly interest American viewers is the discussion of the sound of Elizabethan English – tougher and more rich in vowel tone than modern clipped British speech, more like American dialect in fact.

Series

The only downside of this series would be if it seemed to perpetuate the myth that only British actors can perform Shakespeare successfully. Not so. American actors, armed with this confidence in and understanding of the language, are blessed with their own instinct for truth in characterization, to bring Shakespeare to glorious life eg. Al Pacino as Shylock or Richard the Third, Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.

There is a book that was published in 1984, covering the TV series when it was broadcast. Although this work was done 25 years ago, it is still a classic.

The only sign of it being dated is that some actors used cigarettes as props to convey a casual rehearsal atmosphere. Wouldn’t happen now!

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