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Shakespearean Actors Struggle with Shakespeare, too | Bard in Multimedia

By February 2, 2015 No Comments

Dan Poole and Giles Terera traveled four years and 25,000 miles across the U.S. and Britain to interview Shakespearean actors and directors about their first experiences with Shakespeare.


The documentary Muse of Fire stars a “who’s who” in the world of Shakespeare performance. Classically trained actors Dan Poole and Giles Terera traveled four years and 25,000 miles across the U.S. and Britain to interview Shakespearean actors and directors about why so many are intimidated by Shakespeare.

The first to be interviewed was Sir Ian McKellen, one of the best-known Shakespearean actors of all times, but as with so many Shakespearean actors, he is truly best known for his roles in Hollywood blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and X-Men. He tackles all of the above questions, but here’s what he has to say on the latter one: Of course, Shakespeare is hard to understand. “Some words are difficult to understand because the words aren’t used anymore…or the syntax, the order of the words is not the same” as we speak today, says McKellen. “People shouldn’t dodge the fact that to do a play written 400 years ago is a difficult thing for everyone involved—the actors and those coming to see the program.” McKellen is often asked if one should prepare before seeing a Shakespeare play. “You’d like to say, no… but it’s really not that simple.” The first Shakespeare play he saw was Twelfth Night at the age of 10. His sister not only took him but also explain the play’s story line, which help him understand much better.

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This struggle to understand Shakespeare is what inspired Poole and Terera to create the documentary. “When we were young we were overwhelmed and intimidated by Shakespeare” as are a lot of people, says Poole on BBC Breakfast. The two emailed and called numerous Shakespearean actors and directors and asked if they ever felt that way and did they want to share their experiences. “Judi Dench said it well,” says Terera. “You are told that it is hard; you are told that won’t understand it. If you can get rid of that” belief and feel free to raise your hand and say, “I don’t understand” then you can relax and just enjoy the performance.

Many of the actors interviewed in the documentary have had trouble understanding the Bard, too–at least early on. Dench recalls that poor teaching in school almost turned her off from the Bard forever. Zoe Wanamaker, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as in films such as Harry Potter, admits that she doesn’t really grasp iambic pentameter. Ewan McGregor’s early exposure to Shakespeare was in books in school, “It’s was awful. Something I didn’t really understand.”

But this isn’t the documentary’s only topic. Poole and Terera also chat with performers about the actors first experiences with Shakespeare, their famed roles, and their methods for performing Shakespeare’s works. For example film, TV and stage actor John Hurt talks about his first major Shakespeare role as Romeo, which he played in his 30ties. He opted to take the role because it was in a small theater and thought no one, of importance, would come, so he could explore and learn without having to be intimidated, but what he failed to consider was that it was only three miles down road from Stratford-upon-Avon “so everyone was there.”

The list of actors and directors in Muse of Fire is astounding: Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Julie Taymor, Fiona Shaw, Sir Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance, and many more. In fact, Poole and Terera conducted 116 interviews. So besides the documentary Muse of Fire, now available on iTunes and Vimeo OD, the complete individual interviews are being added rapidly to the online Globe Player with Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The two could use some financial help completing the project. Learn more on their website’s interview section (museoffirefilm.co.uk). This comprehensive body of work is a huge contribution to the history of modern Shakespearean performers and directors. Thank you, Poole and Terera for this gift.


Author Deborah Voorhees

I am the writer and director of the indie film Billy Shakespeare, which asks, “What if Shakespeare never existed until now?” I also create music videos, shorts, and other feature films. I am in the editing room on a short from Othello and a film titled Catching Up. Prior to filmmaking, I covered arts and entertainment as a writer and editor for 16 years, mostly with The Dallas Morning News; I taught British Literature to AP and on-level seniors, Acting for Film at Eastern New Mexico State, and privately as a screenwriting coach. Currently, I am the Associate Editor for Multimedia at The Shakespeare Standard.

More posts by Deborah Voorhees

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