Thursday, December 10, 2009
Co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Barton was, with Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall, one of the legendary theatre directors whose work and acting collaborations in the mid twentieth century would effect the course of Shakespeare on stage in successive decades. His biography includes a range of landmark production through the sixties and seventies (including the 1969 Twelfth Night with Judi Dench as Viola, and the 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream with Patrick Stewart as Oberon), and with his abilities in helping actors through workshops, his presence and influence are felt even further.
In 1984, Channel 4 commissioned Playing Shakespeare, a television series based on such workshops and during twelve sessions, Barton and range of actors including Peggy Ashcroft, Sinead Cusack, Judi Dench, Sheila Hancock, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellan, Roger Rees, Donald Sinden, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Michael Williams and range of other (most still yet to feel the breeze of international fame) worked speeches and scenes and sonnets within a rehearsal situation before a studio audience. Unseen for years, the series has been available on dvd.
The book of the series, Playing Shakespeare, recently reprinted, is a transcript of the sessions, augmented by Barton to clarify material that might not be quite so apparent in the transfer from video to page, and augmented with extra material which had to be cut from the television series for time (and commercials). First published in 1984, Barton still stands behind the material and so rather than updating the text, has been tucked in the back featuring new interviews with Stewart, McKellan, Dench and Lapotaire considering what has changed in Shakespearean theatre between now and then.
Barton's wisdom begins with Hamlet’s “speak the speech” dialogue from Act III in which he reminds the players to project the words naturally and with some truth and not to simply “mouth it as many of our players do” otherwise he might as well get the town crier to do the work. The director’s thesis is that though the characters and themes of the plays are important, it’s vital that the text should be communicated with the utmost accuracy otherwise the audience will not be able to make sense of the story and even the language can seem overwhelming, Shakespeare gives clues throughout as so how it should be spoken.
To this end, throughout these sessions, Barton purposefully ignores what the plays are about and gives minimal direction in terms of the characters. Instead he pulls apart the syntax of the words, the stress patterns, noting when antithesis is being employed and monosyllables demonstrating that though there is poetry in Shakespeare, the playwright is just as interested in pointing the actor towards the emotion he is conveying, which unavoidable, through a handy bit of circular logic, leads the actor to understand to internalise the character they are playing.
In the session on speeches, Barton explains quite correctly that the great soliloquys are about the actor communicating their mood to the audience, something too often forgotten when Hamlet strolls onto the stage then looks at the ceiling. As Barton notes on the dvd (and I hadn’t realised this and neither by the looks of things had Jane Lapataire who's sitting next to him), “To Be Or Not To Be” is not only a series of questions, but also the only soliloquy in the whole of Shakespeare without a personal pronoun immediately externalising the choice that Hamlet has to make.
A set text amongst actors, Playing Shakespeare best serves the layman in its general discussions of acting and Shakespeare’s use of language. The sessions considering what Barton calls the “two traditions” of Elizabethan and modern acting, the use of sonnets as rehearsal pieces, the discussion of different approaches to playing Shylock with Stewart and Suchet and an extended interview with McKellan about the challenges of producing contemporary Shakespeare (well contemporary in 1984) can't help but illuminate our viewing experience.
These probably work best because they’re far more discussional rather than going about the business of working the text. But the book can sometimes be a frustrating experience because though Barton’s intelligence is undimmed, as he acknowledges himself, a few of the sessions hinge on the audience hearing the modifications an actor is making to a speech, and obviously that is lost on the page. Yet it's worth persevering because every now and then you're bound to find a new way of thinking about a character. The section on irony and Richard II has led me to rethink my reaction to the play.
Though the chat with Ian McKellen on the dvd largely reiterates what was said in the text and Judi Dench offers some funny anecdotes about the recording of Playing Shakespeare, Hamlet casts a shadow over the retrospective interviews. Barton has Lapataire workshop “To Be Or Not To Be”, which in isolation she turns from the insecure musings of a teenager into the morbid fears of an older woman and the interview and Patrick Stewart, recorded in the midst of his run as Claudius in the RSC Hamlet, demonstrates, through each their opening lines, the differences between Hamlet’s uncle, the ghost and Macbeth helping to confirm the logic of Barton’s thinking that all you need to know about a character is in the sound of their words.
Playing Shakespeare by John Barton is published by Methuen Drama. £18.99. ISBN: 978-0713687736.