“Playing Shakespere”

IMG_20150623_0001“Playing Shakespeare”: an Indispensable Tool for Actors

Since 1984, English and Theatre Departments have been swapping original and dubbed tapes of a series called “Playing Shakespeare” that was shown on British and then American television. Well, they can all relax, because it has been for some time now available in a boxed set of 4 Athena DVDs—and what a joy it is.

For starters, just as a pop singer cannot take on a role in opera without a good deal of training in a new style of singing, not just any actor can take on a role in Shakespeare without the same kind of reorientation.

John Barton, head of Playing Shakespeare workshop

“Playing Shakespeare” is a filmed record of nine master classes conducted by Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton before a small studio audience. The topics discussed are “The Two Traditions,” “Using the Verse,” “Language and Character,” “Exploring a Character,” “Set Speeches and Soliloquies,” “Irony and Ambiguity,” “Passion and Coolness,” “Rehearsing the Text,” and “Poetry and Hidden Poetry.”

The students are a cross section of British acting talent from stage, television, and film. Among them are Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Peggy Ashcroft, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and others who will be instantly recognized as “Oh-where-did-we-see-him/her-before?” personalities.

David Suchet, not as Poirot, who swaps Shylock with Patrick Stewart

One of the gems among the tasks Barton sets out for his cast concerns Stewart and Suchet alternating as Shylock and Tubal in the scene in which Shylock learns about his runaway daughter’s squandering the money she has stolen from him. It is remarkable how utterly different approaches can both seem exactly right.

Another exercise that stands out in my mind is having one of the actors play the dying Hotspur, first with all sorts of realistic sounds of pain (which overwhelm the meaning of the lines) and then with only a suggestion of pain while the lines are perfectly comprehensible. Many of our modern actors should learn this skill, once they learn to enunciate their words from the start!

Peggy Ashcroft

The most touching moment comes when Ms. Ashcroft hears on old recording and does not recognize her own voice!

There is also a small booklet with extra information of some use to serious students and teachers. The subtitles are a great help.

One does not have to be a theatre major to enjoy established stage artists honing their skills to endow Shakespearean performances with that extra more-than-life aura that the plays demand. This set is a winner from every point of view.

Our local Shakespeare groups should find this set most helpful–if not essential.

Two Stars Prepare “Waiting for Godot” at the Haymarket


IMG_20150605_0001_NEWTwo Stars Prepare “Waiting for Godot” at the Haymarket

Recently, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” made a smash on Broadway, not so much because of the play, but because of its stars, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. My son saw it and gave me glowing reports, and I can only wish the production will show up on a DVD.

But Athena Learning has supplied the next best thing in a 2-DVD set titled “Theatreland.” It tells the tale of a season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in eight parts, the first six of which show rehearsals, bits of performances, and all sorts of related aspects from many points of view that surrounded and were central to “Waiting for Godot.” Anyone just liking Theatre or having seen many plays or (better still) having been in the cast or crews of any plays will be fascinated by the goings on in a noted West End theatre.

Samuel Beckett

Not only do we get to meet the stars (Stewart, McKellen, Ronald Pickup, and Simon Callow), but also the director, the stage manager, the man who tells the audience to be seated, the scenery designer and movers, and even the young lady who grouts the tiles in the restrooms. And let us not forget the understudy who once in the nearly 200 performances got his chance to take over for Stewart when the latter’s voice finally went. (They were doing eight performances a week, you know!)

There is even an episode devoted to the ghost of the Haymarket—all British theatres have one—and I do believe Stewart when he claims to have seen it during a performance. What the mind believes, as the saying goes.

I am not too sure I share the view that “Waiting for Godot” is a masterpiece. But when put in the hands of four superb actors, it does seem like one.

By way of contrast, the last two episodes show the beginnings of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” using the script based Truman Capote’s story. The titanic sets and the several changes are compared with the single set of “Godot,” and the moods of the two plays are poles apart. The contrast is obvious and I really would like to have seen more of the “Godot” performances. But I am grateful to Athena for what there is.

As always the booklet is most helpful and I still rely quite a bit on subtitles as time goes by along with my hearing.