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.
“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.
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!
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.