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Obituary: John Barton

John Barton in 2005. Photo: Pascal Molliere/RSC John Barton in 2005. Photo: Pascal Molliere/RSC

John Barton spent virtually all of his long and prodigious career with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded with Peter Hall in 1960 and quickly established as a flagship of British theatre.

His influence was felt far beyond Stratford, the RSC’s current artistic director, Gregory Doran, describing him as “both a great director and teacher, and simply one of the greatest influences in the acting of Shakespeare of the last century”. The claims are wholly warranted.

Barton married a fierce intelligence and seemingly unquenchable inquisitiveness to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the theatre and a bottomless generosity of spirit. Those qualities enabled him to inculcate in successive generations of actors and directors an approach to verse-speaking and stage craft that stressed clarity of diction, lucidity of thought and directness of action. The result was a transformation in Shakespearean production that irradiated one landmark production after another. It was, he insisted, “not about ‘how to speak verse’, but ‘how to make an audience listen'”.

Trevor Nunn, John Barton and John Bury backstage in 1965. Photo: Reg Wilson/RSC
Trevor Nunn, John Barton and John Bury backstage in 1965. Photo: Reg Wilson/RSC

The son of Sir Harold Montague and Lady Joyce Barton, he began to attract attention at Cambridge University, where he acted in and directed a host of productions for the Marlowe Dramatic Society. Some of his performances can be heard on the pioneering Argo Shakespeare recordings from the late 1950s, released on CD for the first time in 2016.

His first professional success was with the Elizabethan Theatre Company – “This is Henry V as Shakespeare intended it to be played,” The Stage’s review began – at the Westminster Theatre in 1953, by which time he had already been appointed to a professorship at South Carolina University in the United States.

Academia may well have claimed the scholarly Barton had Hall not invited him to join the RSC. In 1957, he edited Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors and created The First Stage, a 12-part radio series on the development of English theatre from the medieval mystery plays to the late 16th century.

Underpinned by tireless research, his forensic approach to investigating text was distilled into Playing Shakespeare, a nine-part series of televised workshops (with leading RSC actors of the day) for Channel 4 in 1982, which was later published in book form.

He made an auspicious start at Stratford, introducing classes in verse speaking and textual analysis for the nascent company and directing Peggy Ashcroft and Peter O’Toole as Katherine and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew in the RSC’s inaugural season.

Barton in rehearsal for Love’s Labours Lost in 1965. Photo: Reg Wilson/RSC

Sharing directing duties with Hall, the same year saw his first production of Troilus and Cressida, the play he claimed as his favourite Shakespeare, staging it again in 1969 and 1976.

Whatever early doubts there were about the point and purpose of the RSC were banished in 1963 when Barton adapted (with Kenneth Cavander) and co-directed with Hall the agenda-changing The Wars of the Roses. A critical and commercial success subsequently televised by the BBC in 1965, it was a historic benchmark that established the template for the company’s future.

No less accomplished was his conflation of 10 plays into The Greeks trilogy, a sweeping portrait of the Trojan War, in 1980. A passion for all things Greek resurfaced in Tantalus, his nine-hour-long retelling of the Trojan conflict in his own words directed by Hall and his son, Edward, for the RSC in 2000.

Barton directed more than 50 plays for the RSC, several of them with Hall (with whom he fell out during the production of Tantalus, the feud left unresolved by Hall’s death last year) and his successor, Trevor Nunn, many of them in seminal stagings. Bringing clarity to verse speaking, he allowed the plays to breathe naturally, illuminated character and context and encouraged actors to “own the words”. His detailed but understated approach produced a raft of touchstone productions.

John Barton with Janet Suzman in 2010. Photo: Stewart Hemley/RSC
Barton with Janet Suzman in 2010. Photo: Stewart Hemley/RSC

Early highlights included Twelfth Night with Judi Dench’s Viola and Donald Sinden’s Malvolio (1969), a Raj-set Much Ado About Nothing (with Dench and Sinden as Benedick and Beatrice) in 1976, Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke in Richard II (1973), John Woodvine’s definitive Dogberry in Love’s Labour’s Lost (1978) and Patrick Stewart and David Suchet’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1978 and 1981.

Barton ranged equally eloquently beyond Shakespeare, notably so in Ibsen’s The Pillars of the Community with Dench and Ian McKellen in 1977, William Congreve’s The Way of the World with Beryl Reid as a monstrously self-deluded Lady Wishfort (1978), and Chekhov’s Three Sisters with Brian Cox’s straight-laced Vershinin and Harriet Walter’s moving Masha (1988).

He had a nose, too, for neglected gems, resurrecting Calderon’s Life’s a Dream in 1983 and memorably opening the RSC’s new Stratford theatre, the Swan, in 1986 with Aphra Behn’s long-forgotten The Rover.

In later years, he continued advising the RSC, giving regular classes and workshops, while also contributing to the British American Drama Academy’s summer programmes.

So popular was Barton’s anthology-portrait of the British monarchy, The Hollow Crown – first staged in 1961 and last seen in 2005 – that Ian Richardson famously quipped that every RSC actor “present, past or passed-on” had appeared in it.

John Bernard Adie Barton was born on November 26, 1928, and died on January 18, aged 89. He was appointed a CBE in 1981 and received the Sam Wanamaker Prize for his contribution to Shakespearean theatre in 2001. He was married to the academic and Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton (nee Righter) from 1968 until her death in 2013.

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