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Playing Shakespeare

Channel 4, 1984

The following is from the introduction to the 1984 book ‘Playing Shakespeare’ by John Barton that resulted from this TV series.

“John Barton has been with the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1960 and has been as Associate Director since 1964. He has directed 38 plays for them. He has also adapted many works for the Company including ‘The Hollow Crown’, ‘The Wars of the Roses’ and ‘The Greeks’. His main work has been with Shakespeare however, and he has directed 26 plays in the Shakespearean canon. Yet as he writes in his preface to this book ‘for many years I have heard actors lament that they could find nothing written which would assist them directly in handling his text and particularly his verse. Consequently I believe that a book which reflects the way that actors think about Shakespeare is now needed. So I hope not only that some actors may find this book useful but also that it may serve, not as an authoritative statement, but as a useful theatre document and casebook for those who study and write about Shakespeare.’

In the first half of the book, Barton attempts ‘a reasonably objective analysis’ of how Shakespeare’s text actually works, examining the use of verse and prose, set speeches and soliloquies, language and character. In the second half he concentrates on the more subjective areas such as irony and ambiguity, passion and coolness. He looks specifically at Shylock’s character and ways of playing it and rehearses a passage from ‘Twelfth Night’.

The book springs from a nine-part London Weekend Television series (due to be screened on Channel 4 in 1984), in which these various topics are investigated in front of the cameras by Barton and a group of well-known Shakespearean actors, whose contributions are an important element in the book, guaranteeing that what Barton says is constantly tested by the actors’ own pragmatic approach.”

The actors who took part in the original series were:

Peggy Ashcroft
Tony Church
Sinead Cusack
Judi Dench
Susan Fleetwood
Mike Gwilym
Sheila Hancock
Lisa Harrow
Alan Howard
Ben Kingsley
Jane Lapotaire
Barbara Leigh-Hunt
Ian McKellan
Richard Pasco
Michael Pennington
Norman Rodway
Donald Sinden
Patrick Stewart
David Suchet
Michael Williams
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