Sunday, August 08, 2010

Playing Shakespeare.

New to Region 2 dvd, Playing Shakespeare is the Channel 4 series from the 1980s in which, across nine episodes, renowned theatre director John Barton workshops with a group of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company various aspects of communicating the canon to an audience. It’s an astonishing piece of television which is essential viewing for actors, anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare and even, I would say, the stage in general and has a quality of thought and presentation which seems quite alien in these times when television assumes the viewer’s ignorance then works backwards.

At the very least it’s important because it captures a moment in cultural history when a range of what are now household names were still perhaps best known for their theatre work. Younger versions of amongst others Sinead Cusack, Sheila Hancock, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellan, Mike Gwilym, David Suchet, Roger Rees, Lisa Harrow, Michael Williams, Patrick Stewart and Judi Dench all appear, an unprecedented line-up united because they’d previous been directed or advised by Barton, all apparently still learning their craft and having great fun simply working the text outside the pressures of a real production.

Barton’s contention, which he describes as the two traditions approach, is that actors should take to heart Hamlet’s advice to the players, totemically repeated throughout the series, “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue” and find a middle presentational ground between Stanislavskian naturalism and the Elizabethan tradition. An actor should consider each phrase and clause carefully so that it seems naturally to be the only thing a character would say in that situation. He’s fighting against the tendency in some actors to simply provide the general sense of Shakespearean dialogue, sapping its spontaneity.

Barton also seems well aware that his televisual approach, a kind of loose rehearsal in front of cameras does have an inherently artificial quality. Certainly there are moments when some actors are trying create a moment of spontaneity which almost always looks like what it is -- a feed question or line so that Barton can move on to the next bit as an actor approaching from the side "John, can I just ask you ...?" But he confronts it by playing the famous Footlights clip of Fry & Laurie rehearsing several meanings of the word "time" then having much the same discussion with his own actors in a more thoughtful tone, to demonstrate that however well parodied his approach might be, it's still extremely useful.

In my review of the book shaped transcripts of these episodes, my main concern was that Barton’s thesis could only be properly illuminated once we we’re able to hear and compare the changes brought by the actors when Barton’s direction and suggestion is assimilated. Sure enough, in the episode when Dench and Pasco work a section of Twelfth Night, we can now see their performance subtlety develop across readings, Dench’s Viola becoming much stronger, Pasco's Orsino more reflective. Sometimes these manipulations have obviously been worked out in advance for illustrative purposes but all of them demonstrate that a performance is a collusion between actor, director and Shakespeare himself.

That’s especially true in the episode dedicated to investigating the differing interpretations of Shylock from David Suchet and Patrick Stewart. Barton directed them both in acclaimed productions and it allows him to also demonstrate that no matter how many suggestions the director gives, the final decisions should be left to the actor. Stewart employs an aristocratic approach against Suchet’s near stereotype but both have strong justifications for their choice, the former the need to assimilation the latter to emphasise their heritage as a way of shielding him from cultural influences, both available in the text. Shakespeare has gives the actor choices.

Not least in the matter of pauses. Barton notes and the actors express that Shakespeare communicates great meaning in the instants when the actor and so character isn’t speaking when their either considering what to say next or indeed waiting for the reaction of their rival or potential lover to their curse or oaths. In speeches too. As Michael Pennington exquisitely reveals, all of Hamlet’s big soliloquies become entirely legible when the commas are emphasised and Shakespeare even offers a hint in “To be..” when he says the results of death “Must give us pause.” Pennington’s contributions are the strongest Hamlet contingent, though Barbara Leigh-Hunt gives a wonderfully restrained Gertrude for “There is a willow…” to illustrate how the greatest melancholia can be communicated through restraint.

Even for those of us who are less interested in the technical aspects of acting, the series is worth seeing for the powerful moments in which the various actors tackle these famous speeches. Patrick Stewart’s Titus consoling himself when all seems lost. Sheila Hancock’s heartbreaking Mistress Quickly on hearing of Falstaff’s death. Lisa Harrow’s horror as Innogen in discovering a headless body. Ian McKellan’s late appearance as Shallow, his pipes whistling in their sound prefiguring Gandalf the Grey. On more than one occasion my reaction was much the same as the bewildered Hamlet on seeing the Player King weep for Hecuba, summoning great emotional depth seemingly from nowhere. Astounding.

With all of the talk of looking to the detail of the text, it’s impossible to also gain some fascination from the chance to see these actors in such unvarnished circumstances, without any of the barriers that are thrown up in their appearances on chat shows. Williams stepping through the shadows at the back of the set looking for a lighter (many of the actors are chainsmokers) or Dench fidgeting with a plastic cup which she quickly realises is making too much noise and hides under her chair. Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym are inveterate flirts, Lisa Harrow entirely receptive. The gentle rivalry between Stewart, Suchet, Kingsley and McKellen.

Look closer still and Playing Shakespeare even contains moments of genuine poignancy. Donald Sindon fighting his natural tendency to over egg within a television studio, keenly aware that his style is at odds with the more naturalist work of the others. Peggy Ashcroft’s nostalgic reaction to hearing a recording of herself playing Viola thirty years earlier, the memories of another time flooding back to her. Dench and Williams’s marital affection, during the segment in which the actors work a longer section of Twelfth Night, the latter with just a few lines but patiently following his cues. And who should be in the studio audience, her acting career stretching in front of her?

Helena Bonham-Carter didn’t apparently receive any formal training as an actress. By the end of that decade she would be playing Ophelia on film and Olivia in Twelfth Night five years after that. If John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare was part of her informal training, she was off to a flying start.

Playing Shakespeare is available from Acorn Media UK. Review copy supplied.

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