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TERRY GROSS, host:

Whether it's in Central Park, Stratford-upon-Avon, Stafford, Ontario, or the open-air Globe Theater in London, productions of Shakespeare are among the most popular summer events. But our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, says, you don't have to leave your house to see great Shakespearean acting and learn something about acting at the same time.

(Soundbite of music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Nearly 25 years ago, I got a call from an old friend who was very excited about a British TV series called "Playing Shakespeare" that was airing in New York. It didn't make it to Boston, and probably not to most other places. But my friend recorded one of the episodes and sent me the tape. I was blown away. The host was director John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the performers on that episode included Judi Dench. Nearly an hour was taken up with Barton going over a short scene line by line, showing how crucial an understanding of Shakespeare's language and versification were to conveying the meaning and power of the scene.

How rare it was to hear an intelligent discussion of literature and drama on television. Finally, a new label called Athena has just released a set of all nine episodes of that 1984 series and every one of them is a revelation. Among the actors participating in Barton's exploration of Shakespeare are Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, David Suchet, who's probably more famous in this country as Agatha Christie's "Hercule Poirot" than as a Shakespearean actor, and Dame Peggy Ashcroft in a rare television appearance. In each episode, they perform or recite a variety of scenes or passages from a Shakespeare play or poem.

These British actors have honey tongues and impeccable diction. But then Barton starts asking them to think about what Shakespeare actually wrote, down to his meter and line breaks. Since the plays are written in verse in a heightened language, should an actor make the performance more stylized or more naturalistic? What if one speech ends in the middle of a line of iambic pentameter and another character continues where that line left off? Does that indicate a pause, or a rush forward?

It's also fascinating to watch two actors approach the same character. There's a memorable sequence in which both Patrick Stewart and David Suchet play Shylock. Suchet, who mentions that he is Jewish, feels that Shylock's Jewishness is central to the part. He plays the moneylender with a slightly Jewish inflection. Stewart, who isn't Jewish, feels the center of Shylock's character is his greed, and downplays his Jewishness. Here's Stewart.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Performing Shakespeare")

Mr. PATRICK STEWART (Actor): (as Shylock) Well then, it now appears you need my help: Go to, then, you come to me, and you say 'Shylock, we would have moneys: you say so. You, that did void your rheum upon my beard. And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur over your threshold: moneys is your suit. What should I say to you? Should I not say hath a dog money? Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats? Or should I bend low and in a bondman's key, with bated breath and whispering humbleness, say this: fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last. You spurn'd me such a day. Another time you call'd me dog and for these courtesies I'll lend you thus much moneys'?

(Soundbite of laughing)

SCHWARTZ: And here's Suchet.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Performing Shakespeare")

Mr. DAVID SUCHET (Actor): (as Shylock) Well then, it now appears you need my help: Go to, then, you come to me, and you say Shylock, we would have moneys: you say so. You, that did void your rheum upon my beard. And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur over your threshold: moneys is your suit. What should I say to you? Should I not say hath a dog money? Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats? Or shall I bend low and in a bondman's key, with bated breath and whispering humbleness, say this: fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last. You spurn'd me such a day. Another time you call'd me dog and for these courtesies I'll lend you thus much moneys?

Unidentified Man: Good.

(Soundbite of applause)

SCHWARTZ: Both actors resist the common temptation to sentimentalize Shylock, maybe because Barton has directed both of them in this part before. They couldn't be more different, yet both of them still convey the same hurt, anger and irony that are at the heart of this role.

My favorite episode remains the one my friend sent me. It's a brief scene from "Twelfth Night," with Judi Dench as Viola, who is in love with the Duke Orsino, played by Richard Pasco, but who has to hide her love because she's disguised as a boy. John Barton stops the actors at almost every line, and after every interruption, the characters and their motivations take on another new dimension. When we finally watch the scene all the way through, we're no longer watching acting. The actors have become almost transparent and through them it's the characters, the story, the action, the play that compel us. Here's a clip of the radiant final take of that scene from "Twelfth Night."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Performing Shakespeare")

Ms. JUDI DENCH (Actor): (as Viola) My father had a daughter loved a man. As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship.

Mr. RICHARD PASCO: (as Duke Orsino) And what's her history?

Ms. DENCH: (as Viola) A blank, my lord. She never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought. And with a green and yellow melancholy, she sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed? We men may say more, swear more: but indeed our shows are more than will, for still we prove much in our vows, but little in our love.

Mr. PASCO: (as Duke Orsino) But died thy sister of her love, my boy?

Ms. DENCH: (as Viola) I am all the daughters of my father's house, and all the brothers too: and yet I know not.

SCHWARTZ: If you're interested in Shakespeare, in poetry or in theater, I think you'll be completely mesmerized by this series. And I'll leave the last wise, sensible words to John Barton.

Mr. JOHN BARTON (Director; Co-founder, Royal Shakespeare Company): Shakespeare is his text and the way he uses it is just that. So if you want to do him justice, you'll have to look for and follow the clues he offers. If an actor does that, then you find that Shakespeare himself starts to direct you.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the four DVD set called "Playing Shakespeare" on the Athena Label. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with Rebecca Kilgore singing a song from South Pacific from a new album she recorded with the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet. Becky and Dave Frishberg will soon record a FRESH AIR centennial tribute to Johnny Mercer.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm In Love With a Wonderful Guy")

Ms. MITZI GAYNOR (Singer): (Singing) I expect everyone of my crowd to make fun of my proud protestations of faith in romance. And they'll say I'm naive as a babe to believe, every fable I hear from a person in pants. Fearlessly I'll face them and argue their doubts away, loudly I'll sing about flowers in spring. Flatly I'll stand on my little flat feet and say, love is a grand and a beautiful thing. I'm not ashamed to reveal, the world famous feeling I feel. I'm as corny as Kansas in August, I'm as normal as blueberry pie. No more a smart little girl with no heart. I have found me a wonderful guy, I am in a conventional dither with a conventional star in my eye. And you will note there's a lump in my throat when I speak of that wonderful guy.

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