Shakespeare Retro Reviews - TV: John Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare”, episode 1 – “The Two Traditions”

Jon Ciccarelli

Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company

As actors we are always looking to hone our craft but finding the right acting class or even being able to afford them is quite a task. Master classes, those immersive and intensive sessions with theater professionals who have years of experience, are hard to find and can be extremely expensive. However, what if I told you that you can have decades worth of Shakespeare instruction in the comfort of your own living room? Such is the case with the BBC series, “Playing Shakespeare” produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and hosted by one of their founders and legendary directors John Barton along with a panel of 21 equally legendary actors. 

The series includes 9 episodes (50 minutes each) that run the gamut from high overviews of merging Elizabethan and modern theatrical traditions to laying out all of the acting tools needed to break down and act Shakespeare’s text in an easy to understand fashion. The series was produced in 1982 for  Britain’s ITV’s “London Weekend” segment and includes appearances by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, David Suchet, Ben Kingsley, Roger Rees, and a whole host of other stage luminaries. The series became the basis for the series of books “Players of Shakespeare” which featured a single actor giving their take on particular Shakespeare character. Once you can get past the rather cheesy intro and seeing some much older actors 30 years younger (Patrick Stewart still looks the same but with Ian McKellen its pretty weird seeing him in his younger years) and some interesting early 80s fashions, the material in the series is pretty timeless and condenses years of Shakespeare training into a 9 hour volume.

In this Retro Shakespeare Review, I’m going to review and recap the first episode “The Two Traditions” and follow up each episode with its own review as there is so much useful information and great theater moments that you just couldn’t do it justice in one review. 

The series was filmed in the RSC’s rehearsal studio and never veers off into a detached sort of documentary perspective that many similar series can have. Barton and the other actors always speak directly into the camera and offer questions, explore points and get insights always with the viewer present with them, keeping the intimate rehearsal feel. John Barton comes across as congenial professor type complete with a sweater and tie combination. This comes naturally as he taught college for several years before directing for the theater full time. 

Being that this is the first episode he and his fellow actors take some time setting up the structure that they’ll work in. Barton mentions thousands of academic books and articles come out each year on Shakespeare but very little in way of how to play the material. Although he was asked many times to write a ‘How to act’ book Barton states that nothing can replace working directly with actors to break down and analyze scenes and each actor’s experience is worth many books. The best guide and indeed director or instructor for learning how to act Shakespeare’s works comes from William Shakespeare himself. Here several of the actors begin the program by reciting Hamlet’s advice to the players as some of the best advice for acting Shakespeare or even acting in general:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness…
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the
mirror up to nature”

John Barton notes that the speech goes to the heart of the matter that overall your best instructor for acting Shakespeare is the direction that Shakespeare peppers in the language and scenes. The language can give clues about a character’s state of mind and what they say about other characters and what other characters say about them is equally instructive. He acknowledges that for the novice actor the language can seem daunting and foreign but once you break it down it can become very easy and some of the more juicy stuff that an actor can play. Barton is emphatic that he isn’t acting as a director or lone voice of authority and challenges his fellows to keep him honest as they go through the program. 

As opposed to doing in-depth character studies or looking at a single play, Barton and the group bounce from one play to another to showcase techniques and give the general gist and set up for each scene so the viewer can easily follow. He concludes the introductory segment by stating that the actor’s job is to reach the audience and make them listen. If the actor doesn’t do this they’ve failed in their job. Barton believes that many audiences don’t necessarily listen to actors doing Shakespeare unless the actor makes them and this important point will come up again and again in the series.

The Two Traditions

Barton starts the class portion of the episode by stating the two items to dive into Shakespeare are the text and a group of actors to explore them. However, Shakespeare’s text can be dense and to illustrate this Alan Howard performs a speech from a battle scene from one of Shakespeare’s most densely wordy plays “Coriolanus”. It sounds great and poetical but all of it can also sound the same and can put audiences to sleep. On the other hand there is the modern acting tradition and to demonstrate this Mike Gwilym and Jane Lapotaire act out a scene from an unnamed modern British play. The point of the exercise is to establish a starting point between what actors will be more familiar with and Shakespeare at his most dense and look to marry the two approaches. 

The group notes that “modern acting” with its approach to naturalism is an offshoot of a technique started by Stanislavsky where anything you do on stage must be done from a place of complete truth and never just playing an emotion. Ben Kingsley simply puts it “What’s your motivation”. However in this very “natural” way of acting there are pitfalls. The group notes that there is the danger of being both overly analytical and inward. Mike Gwilym interjects that an actor can be brooding and amazing but all his pauses can bore an audience to death. David Suchet gives a comical rendition of a theater teacher who OVER analyzes the motivations in “King Lear” using flowery sounding words that have the air of being “scientific”. Barton warns to “beware of jargon, it can lead to talking about it (acting Shakespeare), replacing it, than actually doing it”. 

Barton brings the conversation around to how this is different from what Elizabethan actors would have known or done and while the rehearsal practices aren’t known in any great detail, it is known that their practices differ in several key respects. Firstly, actors in Elizabethan theater wouldn’t have had the full text of the play they were rehearsing. They would only have had their cues and lines written out on rolls of paper or cue sheets so they couldn’t read the full text to know what was going on with other characters. Secondly, they put on plays with only a few days rehearsal and sometimes producing 40 plays a year, a different one for each day of a 6-7 day work week. In comparison, some of the actors in the panel note that they could have up to 10 weeks of rehearsal for some productions that they have worked on. An actor in Shakespeare’s time wouldn’t have a director, they would direct themselves in how to work a scene. The play’s author, in this case Shakespeare, would be the closest thing to a modern director in that he would describe the play’s action and characters and what the story was about. Those actors didn’t have the same distractions that modern ones do and treated the spoken word differently, using a different accent and spoke their lines much faster.
Barton begins to bring the modern and the Elizabethan methods together in the group’s next exercise, having Ian Mckellen examine the opening line of “The Merchant of Venice” – Antonio’s ‘In Sooth I know not why I am so sad’. Mckellen tries the line in several ways each bringing something different such as reading it such as comic, avoiding, or self-deprecating.

Barton then asks ‘what is Antonio’s motivation?’ and Mckellen feels that its confusion but cannot pin down the character’s motivation. Mckellen then states its tough to know the true motivation without putting the scene into a content and asking questions like: Why are you saying it? How long have characters known each other? A complex array of questions that any actor would ask in first tackling a character. So Barton’s point is that in first approaching Shakespeare’s text, an actor does the same thing that he does when approaching a modern play, ask “What is my motivation?” 

Barton deliberately chooses this opening line to demonstrate that Shakespeare is the inventor of naturalistic speech that modern actors are accustomed to and simple lines like this and those filled with flowery metaphors are not so far apart as one might think. Alan Howard demonstrates a passage from Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” to show the type of verse lines (lines set down in a poetical rhythm) that actors were used to speaking before Shakespeare came along. Its very poetical and not very natural sounding and Howard notes its very hard on the voice. Sheila Hancock then does a piece of prose (lines without poetical rhythm) to demonstrate a more casual speaking style but this is equally as unwieldy. Barton’s point is that the naturalistic way of speaking was actually started by Shakespeare and that once you understand how Shakespeare’s text works, the modern and the Elizabethan tradition actually gel quite nicely. 

Sheila Hancock, who was newbie at the time of filming, said that she initially felt inhibited by the language but she found that once she was in front of audience and just gave into it that it was very easy. She notes that the language is so potent that she didn’t have to make as much effort to hit the high beats of the scene, as an actor she had to embellish less. 

Each episode of the series has an intermission where after the main premise set up and discussion have been done, the group gets down to work on a scene or bit of dialogue in a more detailed fashion. Here, Ian McKellen and David Suchet continue the work the opening to “The Merchant of Venice” with Mckellen as Antonio and Suchet as Salerio. Barton points out the differences between the two characters where Antonio is much more straight forward and easy for a modern actor to pick up but Salerio instead uses these rich metaphors or what Barton calls heightened language. Barton defines heightened language as any language that isn’t naturalistic and contains similes and metaphors. So he has Suchet go through it the scene playing it dry to see how it the language sounds much like a modern actor would speak and it sucks. Barton stresses that the words aren’t just window dressing and that the actor needs those words and images to get to their objective. The words are not obstacles but integral to achieving the objective. Suchet completes the instruction by balancing the poetical flourishes and natural sounding dialogue and that balance is what Barton is trying to get out. However, just like modern acting, Elizabethan acting also has its traps.

The trap that Barton points out is “hamming it up” or “any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing” as Shakespeare would say. Its easy to fall in love with your own voice and let that be your acting. Suchet tries the poetical speech by overemphasizing words and gestures and comes across as very comical and completely unrealistic. Barton comes back to that the actor has to find the balance just as Hamlet’s advice to the plays prescribes. The actor has to marry the heightened language and the natural acting. 

Barton does confess that he may be over simplifying the point of naturalism and heightened language, however, even though it’s a simplified take Barton continues its important for new comers to the text to label them as such. Once they become comfortable with identifying and working with the two traditions an actor can use them to work toward a more nuanced approach. The scene exercise is capped off with Ben Kingsley joining in as Solanio and the three actors continue trying to figure out why Antonio is so sad. The result is a spirited exchange and tour de force of a very small scene with three great actors. 

Barton finishes off the episode with again stressing a balanced approach to performing Shakespeare and examining the text. Don’t be too natural but also don’t be too flowery or in love with your own voice to where it becomes one note. This balance is what the actor should strive for to make playing Shakespeare truthful and real. 

In the next review of the series, I’ll look at Barton and company tackling how “Use the Verse”.
To check out this amazing episode you can visit and get the individual episode here
or get the full series here