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Michael Coveney: John Barton punctured the myth that Shakespeare is difficult

John Barton with Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran in 2010. Photo: Stewart Hemley John Barton with Gregory Doran in 2010. Photo: Stewart Hemley
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John Barton, who died last week aged 89, was the godfather of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The director’s sonnet classes formed the basis of ‘how to speak verse’ at the company for virtually its entire existence, though there are times when you wonder where that map and compass have been mislaid in the years since.

The importance of the role Barton played alongside Peter Hall – his co-founder of the company – cannot be underestimated. They both came out of the Cambridge tradition of the Marlowe Society, where untrained undergraduate actors – Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Michael Pennington – learned on their feet and flew at plays like their Elizabethan precursors.

For the RSC was never bloodlessly academic in the way Shakespeare’s Globe (thanks to Mark Rylance) has never been Elizabethan heritage. Barton never banged the table about iambic pentameter. He thought Shakespeare worked best ‘contrapuntally’, that his variations in the strict form was what made him interesting, and that his massive use of antithesis was at the root of virtually everything.

Obituary: John Barton

Where Barton’s influence has been most profound, and where it might, alas, be on the wane, is in matching interpretation with the text at all times. That is not to say, and he never did, that text was sacrosanct. But the psychological boxes actors tick – those of character, relationships – were unknown concepts, indeed unknown words, in Shakespeare’s theatre. So, wrestling his plays to your own personal world of emotional and political responses is not necessarily the best way of either reading them or performing them.

Above all, Barton punctured the myth of difficulty in Shakespeare (although he did once say he feared All’s Well That Ends Well might be impenetrable – until he directed it, magnificently), lauding the monosyllabic nature of the verse, as in, “It is the cause, it is the cause my soul” in Othello’s speech of 169 words, 146 of which are monosyllables.

As a house guru, Barton was treasured by his colleagues and is virtually irreplaceable. And, as a director, he defied the early humiliation of being bounced off his first production by an actors’ revolt (Peter O’Toole was involved), and his reputation for falling off the stage backwards while giving notes and continuing, without pause, from a semi-recumbent posture on the floor, to deliver some of the truly indelible productions of our times.

In three productions, he restored Troilus and Cressida as the greatest tragedy, and indictment, of war ever written. Well, greatest since Homer, perhaps, and The Iliad supplied the Achilles story for Barton’s brilliant cycle, The Greeks, in 1980, which also used Aeschylus, Sophocles and seven plays of Euripides in a revelatory update of Greek tragedy that stands high among the RSC’s highest achievements; he was also the mastermind of the company’s Wars of the Roses, which put the RSC on the map.

For that, he wrote 1,400 extra pastiche lines, just as he rebooted the (then) out-of-favour King John in 1974 with recourse to an earlier medieval play and the addition of a figure of Death. His 1973 Richard II with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating as the king and Bolingbroke set a modern standard that’s never been equalled, just as his glorious, full-hearted productions of Twelfth Night(1969) and Much Ado (1976), both with Judi Dench and Donald Sinden, remain unsurpassed.