Shot in New York City in 1981 and broadcast on PBS the following year, Acting Shakespeare finds an impossibly young Ian McKellen alone onstage, without props or books, in an extended monologue that combines Shakespeare's biography, his own history with the Bard, and lengthy cuttings from several of the author's greatest plays.
He opens, appropriately enough, with the "all the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It, before proceeding to explain his desire, in the hour and a half to come, to "share the stage" with Shakespeare's characters, to "summon up (their) spirits." He then proceeds to relate how we grew to love Shakespeare, and how that love propelled him into Cambridge University (he also refers to himself and classmates like Trevor Nunn, Derek Jacobi, and Dudley Moore as the "Cambridge Mafia").
McKellen's personal reflections are quite enjoyable; he's chatty and funny, and never seems to take himself too seriously. His droplets of Shakespeare's biography maintain that wit; of theories about the health of the Bard's marriage, he notes "All I can tell you is, nowhere in the plays is there a single happy marriage."
But the main attraction here is the cuttings from the plays--and they are, unsurprisingly, fantastic. Most of the classics are trotted out: Henry V, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Richard III, which he would rivetingly bring to film over a decade later. His choices are frequently stage-related (as with the "speak the speech" scene from Hamlet, or the prologue of Henry V) and, though they're mostly obvious choice, he does throw in a few curveballs (like his reading of Sonnet 20). Perhaps his finest moment comes near the end, when he plays both of the titular characters of Romeo and Juliet.
Director Kirk Browning shoots the performance inventively, with smart camera movement and placement; he utilizes slow push-ins and tight close-ups to maximize the effect of McKellen's words. The overall effect is interesting and enjoyable; the only potentially problematic element of the piece, strangely, is the title. I had presumed it was some kind of a master class in Shakespearean acting, akin to Michael Caine's wonderful Acting in Film from around the same time. It's not; it's basically 85 minutes of Ian McKellen doing Shakespeare. There's worse ways to spend your time.
The 1.33:1 full-frame image is about what you'd expect from an old analog recording--soft, noisy, and a bit of an eyesore. Digital artifacts are plentiful, and the ugliness of the image is helped much by the burnt-orange backdrop. It's not the kind of disc you pick up for the stellar video presentation, and I'd imagine they did the best they could with the available materials, but still...
Mono audio is similarly unimpressive, though the limitations are less noticeable. The recording is awfully thin, and I detected a slight hum during some of the silences. But the words are all clear and audible, though that may have as much to do with McKellen's crisp diction as anything else.
Acting Shakespeare is an entertaining and well-performed monologue by one of our great actors, with interesting background information on the plays, the writer, and the performer. It's certainly not for everyone--Anglophiles need not apply--but it's a brisk and smart piece of work for the right audience.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.