There is probably no more daunting task for any actor than to perform Shakespeare. Aside from the sheer terror that commonly arises at stepping into roles once inhabited by the greatest performers of the past 400 or so years, there are innumerable technical aspects that must be monitored, not the least of which is the often incredibly dense language of The Bard. Shakespeare does not forgive "going up" (forgetting one's lines) very easily. I in fact had the displeasure of seeing a rather well known actor managing to go up on Hamlet's iconic "to be or not to be" speech. It was an awful moment, both for the actor and the audience--which had individuals probably chomping at the bit to scream out the next line to the hapless Danish Prince.
All of this and more is tackled in resplendent fashion in the amazing British series, now coming to DVD for the first time, Playing Shakespeare. Manned by an absolutely stellar assortment of Royal Shakespeare Company repertory members (circa the 1970s and 1980s), and hosted by venerable RSC director John Barton, who (to paraphrase Hitchcock) may not treat his actors like cattle, but isn't above prodding them now and again to give an appropriate reading, Playing Shakespeare is an absolute must-see event for any actor, director, or student of Willy the Shakes' works.
Barton, who is rather thoroughly the archetype of a rumpled old director, starts off the series by stating quite candidly that he is apt to let his attention wander during performances of Shakespeare plays if the actors aren't there to demand attention be paid, and he has a hunch that he is not alone in that regard. Sitting in the center of a sort of disheveled backstage area, with the three camera setup and boom microphones abundantly in evidence, Barton is surrounded by a who's who of actorly talent, many of whom have gone on to greater glory, especially to American television audiences. There behind Barton is a young and slim David Suchet. To Suchet's right is the imposing Ian McKellen. Over in the corner is Patrick Stewart. Suddenly in the second row one can spot Ben Kingsley. And that's just in the first episode! Other moments include such icons as Judi Dench and Peggy Ashcroft.
What sets this series apart is its absolutely "open forum" setting. Barton invites comments from the actors, some of whom, like McKellen and Stewart, seem just a little in love with their own voices and knowledge of the subject. Others, notably Suchet, are soft spoken and introspective, but impart incredible insight into various characters and Shakespeare's texts, down to discrete lines and even words. Barton states up front that he's not interested in debating interpretation per se, as he believes that there are an infinite number of "valid" ways to get at various plays and characters. What he's after is how actors and directors approach the texts, how those texts can be analyzed more diligently, and how that analysis will in and of itself inform the performances. Barton makes an excellent example of differing interpretations early in the series when he has McKellen redo the brief opening line of The Merchant of Venice with various directorial approaches suggested ("be evasive," "be joking," etc.). It's fascinating to watch McKellen attempt to come up with different readings on the spot, something he mostly manages to do without breaking a sweat.
One of the other interesting things about Playing Shakespeare is seeing this bevy of well-known talent in a relatively unguarded format. Is there a bit of professional rivalry between Jean-Luc Picard and Hercule Poirot? Though they're inevitably extremely courteous (perhaps a bit too much, in that oh so British manner), the clash comes to a head in one of the most incredibly fascinating episodes of the series, when Barton has both of the actors, each of whom had done Shylock for the director at the RSC, talk about their choices for the character and then do a duel of sorts as they each enact various scenes from The Merchant of Venice. Starting out with a little precursor addressing the allegations of anti-Semitism (something Stewart seems to want to dismiss more or less out of hand, while Suchet, a Jew, has a perhaps more nuanced reaction), Barton then leads the two through several scenes, letting them each become Shylock and perform based on their own interpretations of the text. It's unbelievably compelling. Stewart is loud, obnoxious, diffident and vicious. Suchet is quiet, wounded, and intellectual, albeit able to erupt into rage at any given moment. Both interpretations are equally "valid," as Barton states, but it's still like watching an acting Master Class up close and personal, and it's absolutely unforgettable.
The series runs the gamut from textual analyses (including everything from where to place stresses to tackling long soliloquoys, attempting to keep the audience engaged), to extra-textual issues like context, the culture of Shakespeare's times, and the differences in acting styles between the Elizabethan era and the more naturalistic Stanislavski method of the 20th century. Through it all, Barton is calm, cool, and, yes, slightly rumpled as he slices into both the plays and the performers, looking for some sort of essential truth.
This series is simply going to be a revelation to anyone who has ever had to tread the boards about to utter one of Shakespeare's immortal lines. Perhaps more surprisingly, the show will maintain a great deal of interest for anyone even passingly interested in the arts or actors in general. Watching this many great performers debate and analyze is an amazing performance in and of itself, and Playing Shakespeare is about the most perfect microcosmic version of "all the world's a stage" that one could hope for.