Lessons In Reality, Just From 'Playing Shakespeare' A new DVD of the BBC's legendary Playing Shakespeare series — with Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and more — has critic Bob Mondello mulling over what the bard knew about "holding the mirror up to nature."
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Lessons In Reality, Just From 'Playing Shakespeare'

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Lessons In Reality, Just From 'Playing Shakespeare'

Lessons In Reality, Just From 'Playing Shakespeare'

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

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

Only one of the performers then was a familiar face: Ben Kingsley, who had just made the film "Gandhi."

But as Bob Mondello discovered while watching the 25th anniversary DVD of "Playing Shakespeare," some of those faces are instantly recognizable now.

BOB MONDELLO: The co-founder of London's Royal Shakespeare Company is running the show, but you'll find yourself looking at the performers 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, as he's asked to work a little interpretive magic with the opening line of "The Merchant of Venice."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Playing Shakespeare")

Mr. IAN McKELLEN (Actor): (as Antonio) In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

Mr. JOHN BARTON (Actor): (as Himself) Now, that simple line can be said in an infinite number of ways. Try it sadly.

Mr. McKELLEN: (as Antonio) In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

Mr. BARTON: (as Himself) Now, try and ask what is Antonio's intention. Perhaps, it's to try to explain himself.

Mr. McKELLEN: (as Antonio) In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

Mr. BARTON: (as Himself) And one more. Try and put an end to the conversation.

Mr. McKELLEN: (as Antonio) In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Ian McKellen is now a familiar movie face from "Lord of the Rings." 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 007's boss M. Here, she's experimenting with a giggly line reading for a part where she's in breeches, not a skirt.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Playing Shakespeare")

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

MONDELLO: Also on hand is Patrick Stewart, already bald and, to my tastes, a little too baldly declamatory in "Henry V."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Playing Shakespeare")

Mr. PATRICK STEWART (Actor): (as Grandpre) Why do you stay so long, my lords of France? Big Mars seems bankrupt in their beggar'd host, and faintly through a rusty beaver peeps.

MONDELLO: 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. Ian McKellen, for instance, arguing 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.

Mr. McKELLEN: Everything about the world seemed to be certain. The British Empire was there. It was going to last for a thousand years. And therefore, Henry Irving could stand firmly on a stage with 3,000 people and make declarations. And that was the nature of life, which he could find within Shakespeare.

We, with our different perceptions of the world, the fact that life is difficult, ambiguous, complicated, the British Empire doesn't exist anymore. And what is our role as a nation in the world, what is our role as people, as parents, as children, tends to direct our attention to the detail.

MONDELLO: 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 all sorts of folks have since learned, that the best way to persuade is to hold the mirror up to nature.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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