Director a great influence in the acting of Shakespeare

NEW YORK • John Barton, a director who helped Peter Hall start the Royal Shakespeare Company and was widely regarded as one of the theatre world’s foremost interpreters of Shakespeare, died last Thursday in West London. He was 89.

Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, announced the death, calling Barton “simply one of the greatest influences in the acting of Shakespeare of the last century”. No cause was given.

As a director and in the classes and workshops he taught, Barton was known for helping actors find the meaning in Shakespeare’s lines.

“There are few absolute rules about playing Shakespeare, but many possibilities,” he said in introducing Playing Shakespeare, a series of nine workshops recorded in 1982 by British television that is still regarded as among the definitive resources for Shakespearean actors.

In 1984, he turned the workshops into a book, Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide.

Although he revered Shakespeare’s works and other classic plays, he was not afraid to experiment with them.

He once rewrote King John by splicing in lines from other sources, including himself.

There are few absolute rules about playing Shakespeare, but many possibilities. 

JOHN BARTON, in introducing Playing Shakespeare, a series of workshops recorded in 1982 by British television that is still regarded as among the definitive resources for Shakespearean actors

In 1963, working with Hall (who died in September last year), he condensed Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays and Richard III and staged them under the title, The Wars Of The Roses, at Stratfordupon- Avon.

The production, a hit, put the fledgling Royal Shakespeare Company on the map.

John Bernard Adie Barton was born on Nov 26, 1928, in London.

His father, Harold, was an accountant; his mother was the former Joyce Wale.

He was educated at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, where he directed numerous student productions and, after graduating, became a fellow and lay dean.

There, he met Hall, who was three years younger.

By the end of the 1950s, Hall had begun to garner considerable attention as a director and had taken over the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford with ambitious plans.

When he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, he asked Barton to help him get the troupe off the ground. Barton went on to direct more than 50 productions there.

Barton was also a writer and adapter.

Among his most enduring creations was The Hollow Crown, a sort of sampler of British monarchs, which after its premiere by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, had a run on Broadway in 1963, with Barton in the cast.

The company revived it as recently as 2005.

Among Barton’s most ambitious projects was The Greeks, a ninehour production spread over three evenings that adapted 10 plays by Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Homer to tell the story of the Trojan War.

“Some people will be horrified,” he said, “but I don’t think we’ve twisted the spirit of the plays. I hate the cliches of updating the classics.

“Helen doesn’t wear sunglasses. But she can anoint herself with modern suntan lotion because the Greeks anointed themselves with oil.”

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline 'Director a great influence in the acting of Shakespeare'. Print Edition | Subscribe