Playing Shakespeare : First Impressions

So this morning the phone rings at 5:30am, an automated call telling us that school is cancelled due to flooding.  Awesome.  Wife and kids don’t need to wake up.  However this also means an hour and a half for me sitting in a dark house trying not to make any noise. iPhone and headphones to the rescue, and I finally sit back to enjoy some Playing Shakespeare.  For those not in the know, this is a series of actor’s workshops with John Barton, dating back to apparently 1982.  Cast includes Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley and a whole host of others that I have to admit I do not recognize. All I can say so far is that the people who told me I’d love this, were right!  Hours and hours and hours of real actors and directors talking about how to speak the lines, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue? How not to saw the air thusly?  I use that example on purpose, because it’s how the show opens, you see. The show is wonderfully dated – the fashion choices are very interesting, everybody smokes freely throughout, and many of them give off this sort of, I don’t know to say it, this overly dramatic, “I am an actor! I have my method, this is my art!” sort of vibe.  Hard to explain.  You’ve got this one lady who admits to coming to Shakespeare late and is clearly nervous about her portrayal compared to some others, sitting across from a younger woman who so exudes “I am an actress!” that you can’t help but see her as the type who’ll scream at the director for being an idiot and then storm off to her trailer the minute somebody looks at her cockeyed, accusing them of breaking her character. Let me put it another way, I think I like to watch actors, but I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with them. :)  Lots of “Well, I think it is *this* way,” always followed by lots of “Yes, yes, Judy has said a brilliant thing there, did you all see it? Let’s go with that…”  I suppose it’s a normal day at the office for actors. As an American I have a hard time not seeing it as the Ian and Patrick show, though.  This show is nearly 30 years old, but yet I get a kick out of the fact that Sir Ian is the first to interrupt the professor/director (whatever he is) and say “This distinction you’ve been making for the last 10 minutes, between naturalistic and heightened language, I disagree, I think that what you’re talking about is the difference between good and bad acting.” (Not in those exact words, though the latter half is pretty much a direct quote).  When Barton tells McKellen to deliver a line “sad”, any other actor might have just thrown on a sad voice and done it but McKellen has to ask, “What, you mean just paint it with a broad brush of sadness?”   I suppose it’s like grabbing your nearest Nobel prize winning physicist and asking him to do a simple math problem deliberately incorrectly.  You have to stop for a minute and make yourself do that, since you’ve just been asked for a very alien thing. Then there’s Patrick Stewart.  30 years ago and still no hair.  And sweet Jesus does he have an actor’s voice.  The minute he opens his mouth he’s a Shakespearean.  There’s a funny bit where he does a scene with an actor, then Barton tells them to do it “wrong”, adding pauses where there should not be any.  The fellow actor says, “We did it that way once, in rehearsal,” and then quickly puts his hand on Patrick Stewart’s shoulder and says, “Not with you, Patrick, because I know you wouldn’t do it like that.” I thought that was strangely telling, since he was speaking of a rehearsal, so why wouldn’t somebody be willing to play around with the lines a bit, for creativity? Could it really be the case that, even back then, people like Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian had already risen above their craft to the point where fellow actors were separating themselves?  Or am I just reading into that? I’m only maybe an hour and a half or so into it, but definitely enjoying.  I’m finding an interesting distinction of my own, however.  I love the Shakespeare, let’s be obvious.  Everytime Barton says, “Now let’s hear a scene…” I perk up. I was going to write “even when” it’s a scene I don’t know, then changed it to “especially when”, but then left it out altogether because I’m not really sure which I like better. But what I don’t like? I don’t like when the actors say, “Here’s how I think of this” or “This is what I think.” Everytime I hear that I’m left thinking “Shut up! I don’t care about you, get back to the text!’”  I want to hear how it *is* done, not how this one person would do it.  Know what I mean? Somebody expressing an opinion on this stuff sounds very bold to me, I don’t want your opinion, I want what Shakespeare wanted. I do realize the error in this thinking, since of course it is often the actor’s interpretation that gives us everything.  So I do appreciate the end result.  I’m just not watching the DVD to hear them pat each other the back, if that makes sense.  See earlier bits about not wanting to hang out with actors :).  I’m no actor (obviously), but my favorite quotes from and about actors are often the ones that say (and I first heard Anthony Hopkins say this), “I’m the actor, I do what the director tells me.” It’s easier for me to get in my head the idea that a single person has a vision for this particular production, rather than a dozen people all off doing their own thing and then just kinda sorta coming together mutually. I may be totally far afield here, and just imagining things, but I notice that when Stewart gives a reading he’ll pause and say, “Now, there’s a few different ways I can do this.” To which Barton seems to typically say, “The right way is the way that you feel is right.”  There are many enjoyable bits.  I love when Barton makes his actors do a scene several different ways, you quickly see the strength of the text when he does that.  Or when one actor is demonstrating from Tamburlaine and has to keep coughing because the delivery is killing his throat (he even curses Marlowe at one point for it). I’ve only seen a bit so maybe it’s too early to go on and on, but since there’s so much content I think I’ll probably end up doing a series.  I also don’t want to end up pissing off my actors by misrepresenting them :). 

5 thoughts on “Playing Shakespeare : First Impressions

  1. Young Roger Rees is totally hot. And so is Young Ian McKellen. But especially Young Roger Rees. Oh man. (Is he gay? I'm going to imagine that he's not gay.)

  2. Sinead Cusack does a great job in a scene as Lady Anne. And I'll be curious to read your thoughts on the Battle of the Shylocks. My classmates and I all have very strong opinions on it, as does my current acting professor.

  3. You're representing SOME actors pretty much right on–which is why they/we have the reputation, you know. Also it's the "the squeaky wheel always gets the grease" type of thing. So the "general idea" usually applies to all–even if it's a mistaken one in some cases. But for the most part, I think any estimation of what would be perceived as pure ego by many, has a lot to do with experience. People like McKellan and Dench and Stewart and Barton simply KNOW how it works. They've made it their life's work to study it and learn a lot about the formula–what does or doesn't work best in any given situation, which is why they're not squeamish about saying what they know out loud, and which is why they're deferred to a lot. Not that they're unwilling to experiment, because always, always, always, in any rehearsal or theatrical situation, something can happen that lends a spark of inspiration, a new thought about something, or a new idea of a way to approach something. This is especially so with Shakespeare. These are the people who care about the words, the punctuation, the rhythms, the textual construction in its own skeleton, and it's why they know how to do it so well; they've learned what to look for and zero in on.
    Having been almost as much on one side as the other, the idea of the single-minded vision is pretty much a myth. And although, ultimately, the director is probably the only legitimate dictator left on earth, theatre just works best when it's about collaboration. For that to happen, you need everyone's ideas–even those that seem silly. A genius in the theatre wouldn't be one having not taken into consideration an awful lot of other people's thoughts, ideas and visions, good or bad. In fact, it's often the bad choices by an actor which provide the best opportunity for instruction by a director, and can even provide some of the brightest flashes of inspiration for the director. Since the whole bit is about the human psyche, a lot of "psychological handling" is involved in acting and directing.

    As far as a day at the office goes,
    I wouldn't want to hang out for very long in a room full of Linus Torvalds either Duane. You might feel slightly different about the prospect. 🙂

  4. "As far as a day at the office goes,
    I wouldn't want to hang out for very long in a room full of Linus Torvalds either Duane. You might feel slightly different about the prospect. :)"

    Good point, though my answer might be different than you expect. See "Good geek / Bad geek" post for similar idea. Once upon a time I went to a friend's wedding. A friend who was a sysadmin (i.e, geek) and who had many sysadmin friends. After the wedding, hanging out at the hotel bar, having a beer and listening to music, this one guy is yelling to me, "So! WHAT VERSION OF REDHAT DO YOU PREFER? I JUST COMPILED VERSION 5.2 FOR MYSELF LAST NIGHT BUT I'M HAVING TROUBLE WITH THE WIRELESS DRIVER!" I have no interest in that sort of thing. We're at a bar having a beer. That's shop talk.

    Not saying that Linus would be that type of geek, so perhaps I should instead point to our "Go Deep" discussion and use him as an example of where I'd sit and listen. I don't think I could sit and have comfortable conversation with someone who so seriously outclasses my own knowledge of a subject. I can listen and learn, but I'm not sure what I'd contribute.

    I expect it's the same for everybody, regardless of what your particular "geeky" skill is. There will be a stereotype, and it will exist for a reason, because some of you fill it out nicely. And those geeks of type X that don't fit the X geeks stereotype are allowed to hate those that do 🙂

  5. I think as you go along you'll be able to tell who Barton chose more for their ability to "act" (the part of teacher through example–while they also learn) and those he chose to "act" as students (who will learn more than the aforementioned). Some of them familiar faces, too; All of them are passionate about their chosen vocation and their art. Barton is a "Linus" of Shakespearean Textual Technique. And this exercise is about a little more than just "shop talk". He devoted his life to making the things he'd learned as a director and teacher available, not just as a job, but as a way to advance Shakespeare's work all the better. A way to make it more intelligible for all. And he's done this type of thing far more without a camera rolling to record it. That's why they're ALL there–not because they're "geeks". They're ALL there to learn from him–because they know, somehow, they can.

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