Shakespeare in Action

Jaq Bessell
The Arden Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Action

This latest volume from The Arden Shakespeare is informatively subtitled “30 Theatre Makers on their Practice”.

It is broadly divided into two sections of equal lengths: the first features interviews ranging from around three to eight or nine pages expressing the views of a series of actors, the second those from practitioners of wide-ranging disciplines behind-the-scenes.

The book is then topped and tailed by an introduction and some particularly perceptive conclusions from Guildford School of Acting Director Jaq Bessell, who over the years has worked at both the RSC’s Stratford partner The Shakespeare Institute and Shakespeare’s Globe as well as in the United States.

The connections that she developed via these associations have largely peopled Shakespeare in Action, meaning that the scope is a little narrow with limited acknowledgement for example of Shakespearean productions at the National Theatre or on West End stages.

Allowing for that, this volume is comprehensive, providing a wide range of opinions and methodologies. Indeed, any actor wishing to find support for their own vision of how to rehearse for and present a Shakespearean role will probably find similarities with at least one of their peers, who range from relatively young performers like Jade Anouka and Alex Hassell to the more experienced Colin Hurley and Eve Best.

When it comes to the creatives, there is even greater breadth with directors including the RSC’s Gregory Doran and Tim Carroll brushing shoulders with specialists from other disciplines such as composer Clare Van Kampen, choreographer Sian Williams and designers Bunny Christie and Tom Piper.

In the acting sections, Stanislavski and actioning take a prominent position, alongside consideration of the degree of emphasis that needs to be placed on the original Shakespearean texts, some believing that they have to be followed religiously, while others think that the correct approach is to use them as a guide rather than a bible.

Similarly, the creatives have varied opinions on the best way to bring Shakespeare to the stage, some favouring traditional approaches and productions, while others such as Lindsay Kemp, who is primarily known as a dancer and choreographer, take the view that the text is no more than a starting point.

Jaq Bessell then attempts to draw together the conflicting approaches in her concluding chapter, particularly identifying dichotomies between different traditions whether these are pitting naturalism against heightened language, UK versus American approaches and, to a degree, ancient and modern settings compared and contrasted.

There is something for everybody in Shakespeare in Action. The book is very much designed to help a wide range of those with an interest in the subject, not merely actors and theatre makers.

Regardless of their background, most readers will probably find views with which they violently disagree and some may also feel that certain interviews have little to do with the overall subject. However, they will also learn a great deal about the ways in which actors and those offstage approach Shakespearean production today.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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