Thursday, May 19, 2011

Playing Shakespeare

Playing ShakespeareIn 1984, the director John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company led nine workshops for actors.  During the sessions, called Playing Shakespeare, the actors discuss how they interpret and perform Shakespeare: how they read the words, understand the rhythm of the poetry, contemplate motivation, etc.  Luckily for us, the workshops were all filmed--and they are available on Netflix.

The most incredible thing about the documentary is the range of actors who participate.  Seeing a young Ben Kingsley or David Suchet is only matched by watching Judi Dench or Patrick Stewart in other episodes.  What I love is that we get to see them not only act but think aloud about how they are acting, try out other styles, and see how the collaboration between great actor and great director can work.

One of my favorite scenes is in the first episode, when Ian McKellen tries out the beginning of The Merchant of Venice: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad."  His very first performance of the line is wonderful--but then director asks him to try it in differing moods or emotions: sadly, humorously.  Then Barton asks the actor to consider the character's motivation. What does the character want the line to accomplish?  Barton suggests options: he wants to explain himself, he wants to avoid explaining himself, to make light of his sadness, to try to put an end to the conversation.  McKellen tries them all out.  By focusing on motivation rather than emotion per se, a great deal of depth began to come out.  This type of acting allows the actor to "make a connection between the mouth and the brain, and maybe the heart," as McKellen says.

The episodes are full of little insights into Shakespeare, big "ah ha!" moments into the whole world of early English drama, and a view of a world I could never have imagined: that which goes on in the weeks and months before the curtain rises.

Highly recommended--including for those of us who do not know a whole lot of literary history.  I've been watching the episodes with my partner David and our 12yo son--all of us fairly inexperienced in serious literary scholarship, to say the least--and all of us are loving it.


  1. This sound fantastic! Ian McKellan and Judi Dench honing their craft? Count me in!

  2. Those sound fabulous. Perfect timing too, right before our Cal Shakes season.

  3. This sounds amazing! I just watched a clip of McKellan and Suchet on YouTube. It was so interesting to watch them being students.


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