Lessons In Reality, Just From 'Playing Shakespeare'

Judi Dench i i

hide captionJudi Dench appeared in Playing Shakespeare in 1984. She has since become a global star, thanks in part to her role as spy chief M in several Bond movies.

Mark Mainz/Getty Images
Judi Dench

Judi Dench appeared in Playing Shakespeare in 1984. She has since become a global star, thanks in part to her role as spy chief M in several Bond movies.

Mark Mainz/Getty Images
Ben Kingsley i i

hide captionIn 1968, after attending university, Ben Kingsley joined the RSC. In 1982, Kingsley secured his second film, Ghandi, landing him a leading role and an Oscar.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Ben Kingsley

In 1968, after attending university, Ben Kingsley joined the RSC. In 1982, Kingsley secured his second film, Ghandi, landing him a leading role and an Oscar.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Patrick Stewart i i

hide captionBefore becoming Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart had performed dozens of Shakespearean roles. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966.

Will Ragozzino/Getty Images
Patrick Stewart

Before becoming Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart had performed dozens of Shakespearean roles. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966.

Will Ragozzino/Getty Images
David Suchet i i

hide captionBorn in London, David Suchet first hit the stage with the RSC in 1973 as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. He's best known as sleuth Hercule Poirot on the British television series Agatha Christie's Poirot.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images
David Suchet

Born in London, David Suchet first hit the stage with the RSC in 1973 as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. He's best known as sleuth Hercule Poirot on the British television series Agatha Christie's Poirot.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

"To be or not to be modern?" That was the question in 1984, in a British TV series called Playing Shakespeare. It showed a group of stage actors in nine TV master classes illustrating how to blend Elizabethan and modern techniques.

Only one of the performers — Ben Kingsley, who had just made the film Gandhi — was a familiar face at the time. But with the release of the 25th anniversary DVD, that's no longer true.

John Barton — co-founder of London's Royal Shakespeare Company — is running the show, but you'll find yourself looking at the familiar faces sitting behind him. There's Gandhi in a sports shirt. And Agatha Christie's Inspector Poirot, younger and slenderer than you remember him.

Captain Picard seems to have beamed down from an unpaid internship on the Starship Enterprise, and they're all watching a whiskerless, barely-out-of-his-30s Gandalf — who has being asked to work a little interpretive magic with the opening line of The Merchant of Venice: "In truth I know not why I am so sad."

Ian McKellen is a familiar movie face now, from The Lord of the Rings and X-Men and more, but as he was reciting that one line over and over, he was just a young classical actor, starting to make a name for himself onstage.

So was Judi Dench — back before she was a Dame, or 007's boss "M" — experimenting with a giggly line reading for a part where she's in breeches, not a skirt.

Also on hand, as indicated, is Patrick Stewart — already bald and, to my tastes, a little too baldly declamatory in Shakespeare's Henry V. "Big Mars seems bankrupt in their beggar'd host," Stewart says, "and faintly through a rusty beaver peeps."

(Through a what? What on Earth is he talking about? But you can sort of hear why producers thought he was spacey enough to command a starship.)

None of these folks is a kid, exactly: They were among the RSC's leading players at the time, old enough to know their way around a soliloquy. So it's fun to hear them talking about verse and vowels, and how pronunciation helps to propel ideas.

That will naturally be of most interest to actors. But there's something compelling, too, in hearing these folks place what they do in a historical perspective — McKellen, for instance, argues that it might simply not be true that modern actors are more natural than the grander performers of yesteryear. Actors, he says, are always trying to be natural; it's just that "natural" meant something different in the 19th century.

"Everything about the world seemed to be certain [then]," McKellen says. "We, with our different perceptions of the world — the fact that life is difficult, ambiguous, complicated — the British Empire doesn't exist anymore. What is our role as a nation in this world? What is our role as people? As parents, as children? [It] tends to direct our attention to the detail."

That is a nifty historical argument, and one that applies equally well to politicians and preachers and — dare I say it? — folks who chat you up on the radio. Playing Shakespeare is, in fact, more than just a lesson in acting. It's a lesson in how the Bard of Avon knew, and how all sorts of folks have since learned, that the best way to persuade is to "hold the mirror up to nature."

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