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Review: Playing Shakespeare – John Barton + Players (*****)

Playing Shakespeare is available as a 9-DVD set from  Amazon.com for $35.92 and from Amazon.co.uk for £13.25
There’s a book which goes with the series, available from Amazon.com for  $12.43 and from Amazon.co.uk for  £18.04
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.

Our Bottom Line:

Sheila Hancock

Sheila Hancock

What with the wonderfully 80s hairstyles and clothes, the rather low-tech recording equipment (compared to modern HD cameras), the wonderfully bad title music, and the general approach to Shakespeare, this series is certainly rather dated. However,  I watched the whole series when rehearsing for my first major role in a Shakespeare play and found the advice on looking at and interpreting the clues in the text, and finding a balance between all the different elements that come into play when performing invaluable. Definitely not for the occasional viewer of Shakespeare, but for those with a strong interest this series is very useful and absolutely worth the watch!

Our Review (*****)

This review is going to be rather unlike anything I’ve ever written before, as Playing Shakespeare is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In 1982 John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and acclaimed theatre director gathered a bunch of RSC actors in a studio and recorded nine programs exploring various aspects of “playing Shakespeare”. He speaks of how he had been asked on multiple occasions to write a book on this subject, but felt that the only way to really explore it properly was to work in a practical way with actors. The episodes focus on issues such as how to use the verse to help the actor, holding the audience’s attention during set speeches and soliloquies, and finding a balance between a modern “naturalistic” way of acting and the more over the top Elizabethan style. Many of the actors there are now household names, such as Ian McKellan, Judy Dench and Patrick Stewart and all are excellent Shakespearian actors.

The series is presented by Barton, who comes across as a wonderfully avuncular character, almost like the Father Christmas of the Shakespeare world, with

Ian McKellan and David Suchet as Shallow and Silence

Ian McKellan and David Suchet as Shallow and Silence

his bushy beard, smiling face and rather spectacular combination of brown cardigan and brown and orange knitted tie. He clearly has a lot of knowledge and experience and it’s fascinating to watch his discussions with the actors as they discover clues in the text and play with different ways of performing it. Certain excerpts are returned to over and over, particularly Hamlet’s advice to the players (“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…”), and while this is not taken as gospel, it does inform a lot of the work they do. The word “time” comes up again and again, as it does in Shakespeare’s work, and Barton and the actors explore the way Shakespeare’s attitude towards it seems to change in different examples. A particularly nice example is an excerpt from Troilus and Cressida, a duologue between Ulysses and Hector as they discuss the fate of Troy (?). There is a beautiful poetry to this little discussion, ending on the lines “the end crowns all: And that old common arbitrator, Time, will one day end it.” “So to him we leave it”. However, Barton is also careful to point out the danger of getting overly obsessed with abstract concepts such as Time, using an excerpt of a hilarious Fry and Laurie sketch to demonstrate this.

Judi Dench as Viola

Judi Dench as Viola

Throughout the series Barton makes it clear that almost all of what they say is subjective, that there are very few absolute rules and that while they do their best to bring out all the richness of Shakespeare’s language and characters, they will probably never fully succeed in this. In the final episode they listen to some recordings, one of Othello and one of Viola in Twelfth Night, from the 1930’s. It is clear that the typical way of playing Shakespeare had changed a lot between those periods, although the ultimate aim was still the same; to find and play truth and to bring out the beautiful poetry in the plays. Barton recognises that in another fifty or so years people may well look back on this series and find it old fashioned and outdated. More than thirty years later, we can see that he is right, to some extent. Trends have changed, the RSC now tends to take a very different approach to the Bard’s work. There’s generally a lot more focus on action, sets, stage business, etc. and rather less on the words themselves.

What with the wonderfully 80s hairstyles and clothes, the rather low-tech recording equipment (compared to modern HD cameras), the wonderfully bad title music, and the general approach to Shakespeare, this series is certainly rather dated. However, this absolutely doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. I watched the whole series when rehearsing for my first major role in a Shakespeare play and found the advice on looking at and interpreting the clues in the text, and finding a balance between all the different elements that come into play when performing invaluable. Of course, the series is mostly aimed at actors and directors and will primarily appeal to them; however, even for the more casual Shakespeare fan with an interest in watching and reading the plays, it can be fascinating to get an insight into this process. Definitely not for the occasional viewer of Shakespeare, but for those with a strong interest this series is very useful and absolutely worth the watch!

Caitlin Morris,

To be or not to be

To be or not to be

Reviewer,
Players-Shakespeare.com
admin@players-shakespeare.com

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