Playing Shakespeare (DVD Review)

How would you like some acting lessons from such dramatic heavyweights as Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet? As impossible as that may seem, that’s exactly what you get when you watch Playing Shakespeare since each of these performers are on hand to assist Royal Shakespeare Company’s Associate Director John Barton in teaching the essentials to performing Shakespeare’s plays.


In 1979, a two part special aired on the South Bank Show that featured John Barton and Trevor Nunn and many former and current Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) actors.  The special was intended to provide a general overview of the Shakespearean acting process.  The success and interest in that show spawned a more in depth production called Playing Shakespeare in 1982.  For that program, the venerable Associate Director of the RSC John Barton, assembled twenty-one  RSC company members, including  Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley,  David Suchet, and many others to  participate in nine different workshop sessions for London Weekend Television that would cover a variety of Shakespearean challenges that an actor faces.  The program aired in 1984 and eventually became the source of Barton’s best-selling book, Playing Shakespeare which has become resources used by many actors who are working with and training in Shakespeare.

While they may not be as famous as the aforementioned actors above, but the rest of the RSC members who participated in this effort include: Michael Pennington (Moff Jerjerrod from Return of the Jedi!), Sinead Cusack, Susan Fleetwood, Sheila Hancock, Alan Howard, Donald Sinden, Michael Williams, Tony Church, Lisa Harrow, Jane Lapotaire, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Richard Pasco, Mike Gwilym, and more.  Each of them hold their own with the better known actors although it should be mentioned that at the time of this filming, none of them had achieved world-wide acclaim yet.  This was a year before Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for Ghandi, five years before Patrick Stewart won the role of Jean-Luc Picard, thirteen years before his film Richard III catapulted Ian McKellen from famous stage actor to famous film actor, thirteen years for Judi Dench to make the transition from a stage/TV actress to playing “M” in Goldeneye, and seven years before David Suchet would be praised for his performance as Hercule Poirot.  Seeing all of these future stars in an unguarded, open, and intimate setting was immensely entertaining.

Each of these actors participated in different workshops that focused on different challenges faced by modern actors performing Shakespeare’s works.  Here is the list of workshops:

  • The Two Traditions
  • Using the Verse
  • Language and Character
  • Exploring a Character
  • Set Speeches and Soliloquies
  • Irony and Ambiguity
  • Passion and Coolness
  • Rehearsing the Text
  • Poetry and Hidden Poetry

Three further episodes were filmed but never edited or screened. They were to be called “Using the Prose”, “Using the Sonnets” and “Contemporary Shakespeare”. Their text can be read in the book “Playing Shakespeare” by John Barton.  By far, my favorite episode was the fourth one that focused on exploring a character and starred Patrick Stewart and David Suchet.  Both men had played the role of Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice” for John Barton and the RSC.  What was fascinating about this episode was how different their interpretations of the character were which informed their approach to the role.  While Stewart’s Shylock was arch, aggressive, and extremely belligerent, Suchet’s was quiet, conniving, and more understated.  Both performances were superb and both were equally valid.  As Barton says frequently during the series, there’s no one right way to play a part.  Each actor has their own interpretation of the part and each of them can be just as effective as the other.  Seeing these great actors not only perform some impromptu scenes but also their interaction with each other and Barton while doing so is a perfect example of what makes this series so great.

With Barton’s open and collaborative environment, we also get to hear not only his thoughts, but also his assembled actors as well.  Each of them offer some interesting points but I have to admit I enjoyed hearing the thoughts of David Suchet, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen the most.   While Suchet is humble and soft spoken, McKellen and Stewart are supremely confident in their opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them.  That’s not to say that they are arrogant, but both men have very definite views and McKellen especially, seems to counter a lot of what Barton says which adds some humor to the proceedings.  Barton listens to all of them good-naturedly and often agrees with them or offers a counter-point on occasion.  He also challenges the actors too such as when he asked Ian McKellen to performs the same line from “The Merchant of Venice” over and over again in different ways.  Each time he would tell McKellen to do it differently to show how the line could change depending on how the line was delivered.  His direction of doing it angry, sad, happy, evasively, etc. not only showed how the line changed the opening scene, depending on how it was played, but also showed how versatile McKellen is as an actor (like we didn’t already know that).

Another unexpected pleasure was learning from John Barton who is a veritable expert on Shakespeare and has an encyclopedic recollection of all of his plays.  He’s also a great actor too as we discover when he is asked to perform a monologue as the 16th century actors would have.  Barton also instructs the class to pay attention to the text of the plays since Shakespeare deliberately left clues as to how to perform it.  As an aspiring director, I thought this series offered a lot – not only to actors, but also to anyone that’s interested in directing.  Watching how Barton interacts and guides the performances was a revelation, especially since he never has to raise his voice or embarrass anyone in the process which happens all too frequently in the stage and film world.   There’s an awful lot to learn in this series and despite the program’s lack of polish (you frequently see boom mikes overhead), there’s something about this easy, comfortable presentation that makes it even more interesting and less frightening for those about to perform Shakespeare.  John Barton later offered a similar program with American actors called The Shakespeare Sessions, which I will review soon.


This is standard definition and doesn’t have the laser sharp picture a lot of have gotten spoiled with from watching Blu-rays.  Even the collection mentions, “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.”  The image quality is decent for DVD but after twenty-five years there is some wear and tear on the series.  Colors are somewhat muted which is fine since most of the performers are wearing drab colored clothes and there’s little opportunity for it to present itself on the backstage of a fairly empty theater.  Black levels are decent as well is the contrast.  There’s some grain and noise present but no more than you’d expect from a British TV show from that long ago.


This series has a pretty good Dolby Digital track that showcases the dialogue well which is really all that is needed for this set.  When you have this many world class actors saying their lines, it has to be captured and reproduced well and this set does that admirably.  While it may not be in DTS-HS Master Audio 7.1, this track is free from major audio distortions and sounded clear and without issues.

Special Features 

This isn’t a cheap set to buy, so I was hoping for more extras than this.  They could have included the two episodes of “The South Bank Show” which enabled this series or they could have added Barton’s subsequent effort, The Shakespeare Sessions too.

  • 20-Page Viewer’s Guide – includes key points, discussion questions, avenues for further learning, a history of the RSC, and “Vocabulary of Verse and Stage.”  This is the best extra included in the set and I thought it had a lot of interesting information.  Included are some “Questions to consider,” if you are using this set as a learning tool.
  • Actor biographies and RSC stage credits – A brief recap of the actors stage credits.

Final Thoughts 

This is the best resource that I’ve seen so far that gives the modern actor (and director) the tools needed to perform and stage a Shakespearean play.  This is a must have for any actors especially who have any desire to act in one of the Bard’s plays or even just in general.  I was amazed at how involved and how much thought goes into these performances and how much work it entails overall.  I’ve acted in many plays and I wish I had seen this a long time ago since it really opened my eyes to a world of possibilities available to a prepared and trained actor.  If you’d like to learn more about this series or other similar works you can go to: www.AthenaLearning.com.

Order your copy today!


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