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Playing Shakespeare Gets an Encore Hot

Ron Severdia
Written by Ron Severdia     June 03, 2009    
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Playing Shakespeare Gets an Encore
  • Directed by John Barton
  • Athena
  • Released 2009
  • Running time: 456 minutes
Overall 4

Playing Shakespeare has been a staple of fascination for students and theatre professionals ever since its inception in 1984. It's a master class with the top Shakespearean actors of recent generations, including Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, and the co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Barton. If you've been lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of it (it's only been available in prohibitively expense VHS versions for years), your eyes would have been opened to the amazing power and richness of Shakespeare's text. So it was with great excitement when I discovered it was going to be re-released on DVD by Athena.

The 4 DVD set contains nine episodes:

  1. The Two Traditions
  2. Using the Verse
  3. Language and Character
  4. Exploring a Character
  5. Set Speeches and Soliloquies
  6. Irony and Ambiguity
  7. Passion and Coolness
  8. Rehearsing the Text
  9. Poetry & Hidden Poetry

Unfortunately, the first two episodes are missing and the lineup is somewhat rearranged from the original:

  1. Speaking Shakespearean Verse
  2. Preparing to Perform Shakespeare
  3. The Two Traditions
  4. Using the Verse
  5. Language and Character
  6. Set Speeches and Soliloquies
  7. Irony and Ambiguity
  8. Passion and Coolness
  9. Rehearsing the Text
  10. Exploring a Character
  11. Poetry & Hidden Poetry

The first two episodes explore why the verse and meter are important with then-Artistic Director Trevor Nunn. Sonnets are chosen to exhibit styles of speaking as the RSC prepares for rehearsal and Patrick Stewart does a remarkable interpretation of Enobarbus' speech from Anthony & Cleopatra. These first two episodes are an excellent lead-in to the series as a whole and it's a shame they were left out of this compilation.

The video and audio quality hasn't been restored (there's even a disclaimer on the packaging that states there may be some flaws the publisher was unable to correct), but that's somewhat forgivable since the content is such high-quality. One example of amazing content is the dueling Shylocks with Patrick Stewart and David Suchet, both top-notch actors in the role with very different interpretations. They take turns reading scenes with one another to demonstrate the remarkable range of the text. 

"Bonus features" is a term loosely used these days to show that some kind of extra value was added to the DVDs instead of just being a straight transfer to DVD. It's also used very loosely here since the extras aren't much to speak of. A great extra would have been to include John Barton's follow-up to the series "Shakespeare Sessions" in 2003, where he went through a similar exploration with actors like Kevin Kline, Dustin Hoffman and Liev Schreiber. Or the publisher could have just gone straight to the Blu-ray high-definition format, skipping DVD altogether.

Overall, this is a welcome transfer to DVD and it will bring the compilation (or most of it) to a new audience at a reasonable price point. What it lacks in episodes and bonus materials, it makes up for in quality of information

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