John Barton, RSC co-founder, dies

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John Barton

Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, reflects on the life of John Barton, who has died aged 89.

It is with great sadness that I have to report the death of John Barton, earlier this morning.

John was both a great director and teacher, and simply one of the greatest influences in the acting of Shakespeare of the last century.

John was invited by Peter Hall to co-found the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. He worked with the company for the rest of his life. In 1963, he collaborated with Peter Hall on the ground-breaking The Wars of The Roseswhich defined the principles and direction of the new company.

A number of productions of the plays in the canon which John directed in his own right are still regarded by many as close to definitive: Twelfth Night at Stratford in 1969, with Judi Dench as Viola, and Donald Sinden as Malvolio;  and in 1976 a Much Ado About Nothing set in the Raj  with the same pair of actors as Benedick and Beatrice, and John Woodvine as a very funny Dogberry; Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1978 with Michael Pennington as Berowne and Jane Lapotaire as Rosaline; or The Merchant of Venice first with Patrick Stewart as Shylock at The Other Place in 1978, and then David Suchet in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1981.

But perhaps John’s greatest influence on the company, and hence to the profession, was his passion for the verse, and his ability to uncover the clues that Shakespeare wrote into the text to enable actors to deliver it with freshness and vivid clarity.

In one such workshop with a group who had very little experience of Shakespeare, as John gently encouraged and inspired the actors, they steadily grew in confidence, and excitement. I remember thinking “This man’s brain is a modem connected to the Shakespeare internet. He is an access provider and the company are busy downloading”.

I helped John compile a list of the things that the actors had found most useful from the session. Not a definitive list, and subjective to that group’s experience, but it included some basic priorities which might sound deceptively simple: “tell the story”, “play the argument”, “ask the question”, “aim for the full stop”, “fresh mint the images”, “own the words”, as well as more detailed attention to “respect the monosyllables”, and “go for the antithesis”. And John insisted that our list was not about “How to speak Verse”, but as he titled it “How to make an audience listen”.

Of course, generations of actors were and still are influenced by John’s series of nine Shakespeare workshops “Playing Shakespeare” which were recorded by London Weekend Television, and first shown in 1982. The company of actors included many of the names listed above as well as Roger Rees, Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Lisa Harrow and Peggy Ashcroft. John published a transcript of the workshops in a book of the same name which is still available and very widely read.

As well as Shakespeare, John directed some other major classics: Ibsen’s The Pillars of The Community with Dench and McKellen at the Aldwych in 1977; Congreve’s The Way of the World with Beryl Reid as Lady Wishfort at the Aldwych in 1978; Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, at the Barbican in 1988, with Harriet Walter as Masha, and Brian Cox as Vershinin; Ibsen’s Peer Gynt with Alex Jennings in 1994; Harley Granville Barker’s Waste, again with Judi Dench, at the Pit  and then at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1995.

There were occasional misfires: a double bill of The Two Gentlemen of Veronaand Titus Andronicus in 1982 was certainly an inventive idea, even if it did not quite come off.  When John directed Emrys James as King John, John rewrote the text, including bits from Bale’s King Johan and some of his own interpolations. Michael Billington declared it “the best new play of 1974”.

Then there were discovery plays: Aphra Behn’s The Rover in the opening season of The Swan (1986) with Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack; Calderon’sLife’s a Dream at The Other Place, Byron’s Cain in The Pit in 1995.

John devised his own anthology programme about the British monarchy, The Hollow Crown in 1961. It continued to be revived and toured as recently as 2005, when  Derek Jacobi, Diana Rigg and Vanessa Redgrave took part in a tour to Australia and Canada. In fact Ian Richardson once said that every member of the Royal Shakespeare Company “present, past or passed-on” had participated in it at one time or another.

My own first experience of John’s work was his extraordinary production ofRichard II, in 1973, in which Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated as Richard and Bolingbroke. And a decade later the spell-binding ten play cycle The Greeks, derived from Homer, Euripides, Aesychlus and Sophocles, which told the entire story of the Trojan War with a freshness that was both direct and vivid. I shall long remember Janet Suzman as the sisters Clytemnestra, and Helen of Troy; or Billie Whitelaw as Andromache stumbling out of her shoes, pole axed by grief at the death of her son Astyanax. Or Orestes and Electra, reminding us of Baader-Meinhof terrorists, seeking revenge for the murder of their father.

His obsession with the Greeks stayed with John all his life and he returned to them again in 2000, in Tantalus, a new version of the entire story of the Trojan War (including the wooden horse this time) in his own words, a co-production between the RSC and the Denver Center in Colorado, directed by Peter Hall and his son Edward, and a company including Greg Hicks, Alan Dobie, David Ryall and Ann Mitchell.

John continued to work with the company, until just a couple of years ago. Indeed, when I directed Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, (long one of John’s passions) we held sessions together in which he delivered whole sections of the book from memory, including, most wonderfully, the list of a hundred knights. He continued to conduct sonnet classes, hold master classes and one to one sessions in his New Cavendish Street flat, intriguing young actors, by his constant chewing of odd yellowy green nicotine gum, (it used to be razor blades apparently) and getting tangled in his big woolly cardigans. Although frail in body at the last, he was always mentally alert and retained his sense of curiosity until the end.

He had only recently moved from New Cavendish Street to a care home in West London. He was in his ninetieth year.

His wife Ann passed away aged 80 in 2013. He is survived by his devoted sister Jennifer.

John always declared that his favourite play was Troilus and Cressida. He first directed the production in 1960, with Max Adrian as Pandarus, Dorothy Tutin as Cressida and first Denholm Elliot then Ian Holm as Troilus, and in 1969 with a young Helen Mirren as Cressida opposite Michael Williams, with Alan Howard delivering a distinctly homoerotic performance as Achilles. And finally, in 1976 with Mike Gwilym and Francesca Annis as the separated lovers.

John’s eyes lit up when I told him that I would be directing his favourite play this year, and he shared some of his passion for the play with me.  I regret that he won’t be around to tell me what I got wrong.  So I have chosen to dedicate our production of Troilus and Cressida this autumn to John Barton, a Shakespeare genius, a mentor, and I am proud to say, a friend.

Gregory Doran, Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director, Stratford-upon-Avon