Over the past year or so I have been watching, off and on, a British television series from the 1980s called Playing Shakespeare. The programme is led by John Barton, who explores the performance of Shakespearean drama “in the round”, with the help of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company (which company Barton himself founded). Some of these actors are known to you and me because of their careers in film: Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, and Ben Kingsley, for instance.
I have never acted in a Shakespeare play, and I don’t foresee that I ever will, but the programme is fascinating nonetheless for the insight it provides into the plays and the art of bringing them to life. We have all, I have no doubt, witnessed bad Shakespearean acting, and we have all, I hope, occasionally seen good Shakespearean acting. Part of the pleasure of watching Playing Shakespeare has for me been in seeing how even good acting can be made something special by slight touches.
Watching has also helped me realize how much difference a good director can make to the success of a play. John Barton is a wonderful host: genial, clear, and, most important, full of interesting ideas about how to deliver the lines in order to get the most from them.
Here is a good example from an episode exploring Shakespearean irony, which Barton defines rather broadly as “saying one thing while meaning another” (or saying one thing while also meaning another). The “case study” is a speech by Richard II from Act III Scene 2 of the play bearing his name. They run through it once, quite well all things considered, then have a discussion about it, and finally run through it again. What a difference!
(The clip above is the entire one-hour episode. I have attempted to use wizardry to start and stop the clip at certain points, but if my wizardry fails I intend to start at 26:00 and end at 31:15. I am sorry but I do not know the names of the actors in this clip.)