Monday, May 16, 2011

The Shakespeare Sessions DVD Review

Back in 1984 a television program came out in Britain called Playing Shakespeare and it starred some of the stars from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) including Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, David Suchet, Ben Kingsley, and more.  It also featured the co-founder of the RSC, John Barton who hosted the program and helped educate the general public and aspiring actors on how to perform a Shakespearean play.  Nineteen years later, a sequel of sorts called the The Shakespeare Sessions came to be except that this time, the actors are American and it was filmed in New York City.  Helping Barton this time around is Kevin Kline, Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce, Charles S. Dutton, Lynn Collins, Liev Schreiber, and Dustin Hoffman.

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

The master of all Shakespearean things has returned and although he looks more frail, his razor sharp wit and constructive criticism are just as potent as there were decades ago.  Kevin Kline asked John Barton to cross the Atlantic since he had heard so many British actors rave about working with Barton who helped them understand their characters or the play in a way they hadn’t understood before.  Because of that, Kline invited Barton to come talk to another set of American students that included many famous actors.
In Playing Shakespeare (read my review here), it was Barton along with his RSC cast-members but this time, he is joined by his fellow co-founder of the RSC, Peter Hall who was in New York directing Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice.  This film goes back and forth between classroom discussions about the plays and performances to a behind the scenes look at actual rehearsals with a major star who is trying to find his own way to playing one of Shakespeare’s most famous roles.  The lessons offered include topics on:
  • Creating a world with words
  • The clues are in the text
  • Play the story
  • Changing gears: prose to verse
  • The questions reveal the character
  • Handling emotion
  • Setting word against word
  • Connecting with the audience
Much like what happened in Playing Shakespeare, Barton has the actors play scenes from one of Shakespeare’s plays to illustrate his points.  Whether it’s a lesson on how to interpret the lines and what Shakespeare’s intentions were for actors through his use of antithesis or how to switch between verse and prose, Barton makes it seem easy and fun.  Since the last program, Barton seems to have relaxed even more (which hardly seemed possible) and now jokes easily with the students in a self-deprecating way.  He is such a natural instructor that he puts the students and the stars (who are just as eager to impress) at ease.
Another joy that’s been carried over from the earlier show is seeing big stars not only doing something different than what they are known for but also to see those stars doing Shakespeare for the people who many not live in New York City and can’t see the actors perform in these type of plays.  I also love seeing the interaction between Barton as the director and the stars and see how he carefully gets the performances he’s looking for while never making the actor feel embarrassed or angry.  It’s also cool to see that Barton still believes that anyone can perform Shakespeare and that it’s not just the province of the British thespians alone.  I wish Barton did this more often so everyone could see them, but he does do live workshops in England if anyone there would like to benefit from his erudite direction.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Since this is a DVD, I didn’t have high expectations for the picture quality but this is suitably acceptable for the format.  This 1.33:1 transfer’s detail is average as are its colors and contrast.  Black levels aren’t as inky as I would like but again, this is a DVD so realistic expectations are needed.  Flesh tones look natural and are consistent especially in close ups.  Lynn Collins looks especially lovely during this time period!

Audio (3 out of 5 stars) 

This DVD offers a very basic stereo track that won’t impress home theater enthusiasts but it gets the job done as far as this material is concerned.  Since this entire program is about dialogue and actors performing dialogue from Shakespeare’s plays, it’s a good thing that it is clear and understandable.  This may not be a house shaking track but it works for this program.

Special Features (0 out of 5 stars)

There are no special features.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)

It’s good to see Barton back dispensing with his usual excellent advice to actors and to see him interact with this group of stars.  If an actor was trying to determine which program would offer me the most instruction then I would recommend Playing Shakespeare over this one since that one is considerably more comprehensive as this film only runs an hour.  My biggest complaint about this program is the running time since I would have liked to have seen a lot more.  I also would have liked to have seen some extras as well which would have helped improve the final score.
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