Playing Shakespeare has been a sorely neglected series for the past 25 years. Previously only available on VHS at an inflated cost to universities and libraries, it’s at last been released on DVD in a four-disc box set. This nine-episode series from 1984 is hosted by Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) associate director John Barton, a veritable font of Shakespearean knowledge who teaches what is essentially a master class for actors. He spends each hour dissecting different passages within the plays, all related to a given episode’s topic, and then breaks them down line by line with the actors. And the actors he instructs include some of the most talented ever to come out of the RSC: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet.
While watching the actors hone their interpretations and readings is instructional in its own right, Barton also distills Shakespeare’s language into easy to understand concepts and stresses the importance of delivering the lines appropriately for the given text or risk losing their meaning entirely. Some of Barton’s wisdom: “Be very conscious of the verse in rehearsal and don’t think about it in performance.” Like an actual college course, Barton teaches concepts early on and applies them in later episodes. And though some questions the actors ask are genuine, at least some answers/questions feel scripted.
Admittedly, if it weren’t for the caliber of acting on display, the series would be dull for viewers without an inherent interest in either acting or Shakespeare’s work. But watching someone like McKellen deliver several radically different readings of the same piece is nearly as fascinating as watching him in a film. There’s also a certain novelty to watching these now-famous actors interact with one another before their careers had taken off (this series was filmed in 1982, a year before Kingsley won his Oscar for Gandhi and five years before Stewart joined the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation).
This series is based on an earlier two-part special aired on The South Bank Show in late 1979 hosted by Barton and Trevor Nunn of the RSC and featured a number of the same actors (Stewart had noticeably more hair). Unfortunately, this original program was not included with this set. Many of the same topics addressed in the special are touched on in more depth in the series, but for the sake of completeness, it would have been nice to see it included here. Likewise, The Shakespeare Sessions, a Barton-hosted special from 2003 featuring American actors like Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Kline performing the Bard’s work, would have been a welcome addition.
The master tapes for this series are on standard definition video and, after 25 years, naturally exhibit some wear. The DVD packaging notes this fact: "Due to the age of these programs and the improved resolution that DVD provides, you may notice occasional flaws in the image and audio on this DVD presentation that were beyond our ability to correct from the original materials." However, this is still an enormous upgrade to the shoddy homemade copies taped off PBS broadcasts available prior to this release and any quibbles with the video quality are minimal. The audio is simple mono, clear, with no distortion or noticeable issues and, gratefully, no noise reduction.
The included bonus material is largely incidental: select actor biographies and RSC stage credits. Although there is a booklet with some "questions to consider" and a small glossary for stage terms, Athena could have beefed up the educational features or the extras on this release if they’re charging $80 for it.
A long overdue and welcomed release for this one-of-a-kind series, if slightly overpriced and lacking in extra features.