John Barton (1928-2018)

Ian McKellen recalls the renowned director John Barton

John Barton, Stratford 2007

Tomorrow 8th February 2018 is John Barton's funeral in London. John Barton's obituaries have rightly hailed his half-century working for the Royal Shakespeare Company as director, playwright, play-doctor and teacher.

In 1960 when he was 32, John abandoned academia in Cambridge, where he was researching the original staging of Elizabethan theatre, at the behest of his chum Peter Hall, both of them having acted and directed for the Amateur Dramatic Club. When the caretaker of the ADC's theatre heard that John, then Lay Dean of King's College, was off to Stratford-upon-Avon he said: "Oh yes, Mr Barton was always the one who Peter got in, to sort out the problems." Barton was the Fixer: Barton the Expert: Barton who studied, practiced and lived for the Theatre.

At once he was given The Taming of the Shrew to direct, starring Peggy Ashcroft and the younger Peter O'Toole, neither of whom got on with the ex-academic and insisted he be replaced. Peter Hall told his mate the game was up and that he should return to Cambridge. John refused and locked himself in his office, day-and-night, fed from a tray delivered by his secretary, until he was allowed to re-start his career in the professional theatre. A year before he died, I asked John about all this. He seemed to have forgotten or at least forgiven. Dame Peggy had later become one of his stalwart colleagues, starring in his anthology entertainment The Hollow Crown. O'Toole meanwhile had his large nose put out of joint, literally and went into films.

In truth, John's disparaging reputation as a mere academic missed the mark. His studies at King's College served him well as a director.

In a tradition of dramatic verse-speaking established by George Rylands, another don at King's, for John too, it all began and ended with the words. Everything was at the service of clarity, even if it meant cutting, as he did for me, Leontes' knotted, jazzy verse in The Winter's Tale, because the actor wasn't making it comprehendible. Other times, if he felt a speech, soliloquy or rhetoric, weren't quite working, he'd cover their defects with some background music, whose melody would do the repairs.

Sometimes he jollied things up in an overtly theatrical (some thought in a vulgar) way. He set Much Ado About Nothing in colonial India; he surrounded Dr Faustus with puppetry; he re-wrote early Shakespeare for his masterpiece The War of the Roses and later for King John. He was also a master swordsman and choreographed RSC fights and battles, as he had earlier done for the Marlowe Society's undergraduate productions at Cambridge.

The television series (and book) Playing Shakespeare set out his method: a humane appreciation of the thoughts in a speech, plus a scholar's alertness to the language and how it might instruct the actor on how to speak a line. The rhythm and stress in the verse do that, he rightly thought.

He was on hand at the centre of a mighty experiment — the formation of a theatre company expert in Shakespeare and other classics, as well as in new plays by Pinter — and Barton. He thrived in a closed environment — Eton, King's College, RSC. At Cambridge and Stratford, he was the wise adviser. His wayward hair untamed atop a noble twinkly visage, he was always listening to you, in conversation or in the theatre.

My first contact with him was life-affirming and life-changing. He was on the panel from the ADC Committee, who judged the auditions of first-term undergraduates, like me and Derek Jacobi and Trevor Nunn, who also ended up in the professional theatre. We were bidden to do to speeches — one Shakespeare, one modern, from the list of suggestions they provided. Having been impressed by Anthony Quayle's blacked-up Aaron in Titus Andronicus a couple of years previously at Stratford, I chose Aaron's speech on the list.

I'm told the panel was umimpressed, so my second, modern speech would be vital. My chance to participate in undergraduate theatre was fading. I chose a speech not on the list. Billy Rice is a retired music-hall performer in John Osborne's The Entertainer. In his speech of reminiscence for days-gone-by, I could at least aspire to some versatility. I expect my Billy was good, at least on sentimentality and I enjoyed distorting my 18 year-old body to suggest Billy's age.

Still the panel remained unimpressed but John insisted I be allowed into the ADC. So I was. He must have detected enough of the character man in me, that he might use and develop. For his production of Henry 4th part 2, he'd found a possible Justice Shallow. This was for the Marlowe Society. I have already recorded memories of that production and of Chekov's Three Sisters, his farewell to amateur theatre.

I last saw him just before he moved from his West End apartment behind the BBC's Broadcasting House. As I chatted, he nibbled at processed cheese and biscuits and fruit: not at all communicative. Then I told him I was about to play King Lear at Chichester. He stopped chewing, turned his lovely aged face to mine and smiled broadly. I took his delighted grin as a sign that my old mentor approved. I thanked him with a hug.

Ian McKellen, London, 7 February 2018

Ian McKellen and John Barton, Stratford 2007

Photos by Keith Stern


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