The Discipline of Shakespeare

I’m afraid of higher education. I don’t feel I’m good enough for it. It’s a genuine, pit of the stomach, throw-up terror at the mere thought of being in an over-lit classroom with a teacher who will ask me stuff, and will expect an answer, in front of students who will obviously be wondering how a worm got in amongst them. I can’t even face my fear head on because my brain has developed a sneaky strategy for keeping me away from formal education – it pretends I’m not really in the room and then, slowly, without me even realising, I stop going. If I refuse to stop going it’ll take desperate measures and I’ll get sick – like a Victorian hysteric with consumption.

So I was overjoyed to find some lessons on DVD – in this case, ‘Playing Shakespeare’, a series of nine acting Master Classes, written and presented by John Barton (co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company), featuring members of the Royal Shakespeare Company : Peggy Ashcroft, Tony Church, Sinead Cusack, Judi Dench, Susan Fleetwood, Mike Gwilym, Sheila Hancock, Lisa Harrow (my favourite), Alan Howard, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotiare, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Ian McKellen, Richard Pasco, Michael Pennington, Roger Rees, Norman Rodway, Donald Sindon (a man who can’t sniff without booming), Patrick Stewart (pre-Star Trek), David Suchet (pre-Poirot) and Michael Williams. It was filmed in 1982 and transmitted in 1984. A young Helena Bonham Carter was in the audience. It was produced by Melvyn Bragg and made by London Weekend Television for ITV – back in the days when ITV wanted to bring a bit of culture to the masses.

The DVD cover of Playing Shakespeare

Of course I learnt a lot. How to follow the line and put pauses were Shakespeare put pauses, how to use irony, how to play the words and let the emotions follow naturally. I learnt that Shakespeare is not boring if the actor relishes the language (I also learnt that almost all actors don’t relish it – John Barton was the best actor in the programme, possibly because he was the only one who really-honestly-completely understood and trusted the work). I learnt that actors have a type of nervy desperation in filmed rehearsals, half wanting to be one-up on the other actors, half terrified of being rubbish, and being wildly deferential, jokey and pally to cover it up – which was quite entertaining since I didn’t have to go through it.  Lisa Harrow was lovely and heartbreaking. Patrick Stewart did bizarre things with his voice. Roger Rees was so lively I could swear a drug was involved.

Lisa Harrow & Roger Rees in 1973 - photo by Wolynski

But for all I learnt about acting, Shakespearean verse and human nature… what really impressed me was how seriously they took it. They’d managed to find something that gave – for the time they worked on it – meaning and structure to their lives. It involved action, it involved emotions, but it had rules, it had limits, it had a purpose. They would dedicate themselves to their roles, would learn their lines and movements, and then would present it to an audience, who would enjoy it, or learn from it, or would long to be part of it, or would take the actors as role models or dream lovers or leaders of their own personal cultural tribe… It’s easy to take the piss out of them. John Barton’s sweet, chubby little face seems as hand-knitted as his tie and his cardy, the actors are ‘frightfully’ middle-class (the poor sods could be starving on the RSC wages but their vowels would still sound as if they should be telling the servants what they want for dinner) and they make acting seem like the most GRAVE, IMPORTANT, RISKY thing in the world, which it isn’t. You could also get angry at them for eating up all those resources – the time, the money, the heating, the lighting, the space, the props, the costumes, the make-up, the sets, the snacks – just to arse about with a dead poet; Pol Pot would stick them in the fields, Chairman Mao would get the students to batter them, Fidel Castro would probably roll his eyes a bit and wish he could put them in a field or batter them. They’re so LUCKY.

Because having something to do, something to revere, helps to evade the most pressing modern problem; what’s the point?

What is the bloody point? We’re born, we keep alive (often by eating some other creature that’s trying to keep alive), we pass on our genes or we don’t, and we die. We absolutely always die. You can have the greatest life in the world and you’ll still have to kick the bucket. In the olden days we were half dead and our survival instinct wouldn’t give us time to contemplate such things – really, if we all want to be mentally healthy we should go back to hunting and gathering and dying at 20; then we had religion or at least superstition (and some of us still do – although even the true believers have doubts, it would be hard not to since Science and secularism keeps bombarding us with facts and alternatives – I had to let my heart and my head go their separate ways, my heart says ‘Jesus!’, my head says ‘Jesus’ while tutting at me)… and beyond half dying and worshipping the Creator, what?

I think there’s roughly three directions we can stumble down.

1. Fixations – this could be one thing, one thing at a time, or hundreds of things screaming in your brain all the time. This covers drink, drugs, sex, food, shopping, ideology, phobias, fears, illnesses, twitter… anything that eats your time up and fills your imagination with possibilities… this can be listless and amoral, or driven and judgemental.

2. Going up – getting more stuff, earning more money, having more power and influence, gaining a higher status, perfecting a skill, beating an opponent… This can be individual or collective, real or imaginary, personal or vicarious… it can be work, or sport, or war, or family, or a hobby.

3. Going down – getting rid of stuff, helping others, sacrificing, giving up… this is when you do things for the greater good, or for a higher power, or to serve a noble idea,or to raise your unique sprogs, or save adorable donkeys… you can be admired for it or you can be seen as a creepy smothering controlling enabler.  

Lots of patterns of living incorporate all three – like buying tons of stuff from Oxfam or looting Oxfam without getting caught by the cops, or fighting for economic equality or fighting to preserve a traditional hierarchy.  And some people are stuck with one and wish they had another – like working in a call centre and wanting to rescue whales. And some people have none – like being stuck in a house, with no money, no job, and nothing to go out for.

We’re surrounded by these choices and have no choices at all. We need to be in the right place, at the right time, knowing what we want or else we muddle along with mild to acute frustrations, wondering what’s missing. All our biggest arguments, panics and manias centre on trying to persuade others that this pattern is the best pattern, and that pattern will lead us to DOOM – that DOOM happily hiding the real DOOM, which is that you’re bleeding going to die and nature doesn’t care (or not care) if you do it painfully or in your sleep or in silk sheets or in a ditch. That thought is agony. We need a discipline. A guide. Some rules. Consequences. Anything that cuts through the chaos. Anything so we don’t have to think it. Anything so we don’t have to think of the terrible thing we think about when we don’t know what the real terrible thing is.

If only we could feel as sure as those Shakespearean actors in that rehearsal room….  

John Barton, Sir Ian McKellen, David Suchet

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