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Originally published Friday, August 21, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Watch a master at work on DVD set 'Playing Shakespeare'

"Playing Shakespeare," a nine-episode British TV program filmed in 1982, is now out on DVD in the U.S. in a four-volume set.

Seattle Times theater critic

On DVD

'Playing Shakespeare'

Four-CD set from Athena Learning. List price: $79.99. More information: www.athenalearning.com.

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Some years ago, I sat in a room packed with actors at the Public Theatre in New York City, watching a sweatsuit-clad Kevin Kline deliver the famous "St. Crispin's Day" speech from "King Henry V."

Surely one of the finest American Shakespeare actors of our day, Kline gave a commanding reading of the young King Henry's rousing pep talk to his troops, on the eve of the battle of Agincourt.

But when he was done, a bearded man in a tweed jacket stepped forward to offer a few suggestions. Nothing major — just stressing this word or that, pausing here or there for effect, and remembering that Shakespeare wrote this speech as propaganda, really, to show how a great monarch can spur his discouraged army on to victory.

The man was John Barton, esteemed co-founder of England's Royal Shakespeare Company, and stage director. And with those few quiet notes during that public master class on "speaking the speech" of Shakespeare, he helped turn Kline's excellent performance into a mesmerizing one.

Barton's rich comprehension of the Bard of Avon's canon is in full cry in "Playing Shakespeare," a nine-episode British TV program filmed in 1982 and now out on DVD in the U.S. in a four-volume set.

What is rare and remarkable in the series is not just Barton's tremendous insights into the plays, but also his eloquent yet accessible way of communicating them to a general audience.

"Playing Shakespeare" also offers a rare peek into how great actors analyze and rehearse classical roles — thespians of the caliber of Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley and David Suchet, all of whom participated in these filmed workshops.

As Barton elucidates the challenges facing performers in episodes with such titles as "Exploring a Character," "Set Speeches and Soliloquies" and "Poetry and Hidden Poetry," a group of 21 actors dressed in street clothes demonstrate exactly what he's talking about.

Anyone interested in watching, reading or learning about Shakespeare, or theater in general, should find it fascinating to see Dench (better-known in the U.S. for her Oscar-winning turn in "Mrs. Brown" than her many Shakespearean triumphs) vary the delivery of a single line in "Twelfth Night" to achieve subtly different effects.

Equally enlightening is a friendly debate between Stewart and Suchet, about portraying the controversial figure of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, in "The Merchant of Venice."

In a discussion of how specifically "Jewish" the role is, Suchet won the argument (in my mind) by pointing out that in the text Shylock is called by his own name six times. He's addressed as "Jew" 22 times.

It's a trip to see such acclaimed performers as they appeared more than two decades ago — before Stewart captained a spaceship in "Star Trek: the Next Generation" or Suchet donned pince-nez to solve crimes as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

What you see in "Playing Shakespeare," however, is the rigor and craft that leads to such seamless performances in pop-cultural or classical parts. Moreover, you learn what a high bar Shakespeare sets for actors.

Barton's patient coaxing yields best results, of course, from actors who are some of Britain's finest.

But his comments about finding and underscoring the ambiguities and ironies in Shakespeare texts, and stressing certain beats and pauses and "cues" to alter the meaning of a single line or an entire characterization, are nearly as valuable to a Shakespeare-watcher.

The play is the thing to Barton — discovering it "line by line" and immersing oneself "deeply inside the situation." He's trying to teach actors to be better Shakespeare players — and helping us to be a better audience.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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