John Barton – theatre director, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company
Born November 26 1928; died January 18 2018.
John Barton, who has died aged 89, may not have had the public flamboyance of Peter Hall, his former Cambridge contemporary who in 1960 drafted him in as associate director of the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company. Barton’s effect on post World War Two British theatre, however, was just as seismic. There will be few drama graduates over the last three decades who haven’t come into contact with Playing Shakespeare, the nine-part Channel 4 series filmed in 1982, and which featured a series of extensive workshops on the bard.
Led by an avuncular Barton, whose cardigan-clad image belied his forensic and gimlet-eyed knowledge of Shakespeare’s text, the workshops featured a cast-list drawn from the RSC’s resident company of the time. These included the likes of Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Sinead Cusack and Patrick Stewart. While watching such luminaries get to grips with Shakespeare as guided by Barton has been much parodied since, the programme remains a vital primer in speaking classical text which many younger actors today might benefit from.
By the time laying Shakespeare was broadcast, Barton had already spent two decades at the RSC. After diverting from what looked set to be an academic career path at King’s College, Cambridge, he oversaw some of the company’s early landmark productions. These included his epic staging of Shakespeare’ history plays as The Wars of the Roses in 1963/1964, a production of Troilus and Cressida with Helen Mirren in 1968, and one of Twelfth Night in 1969 featuring Dench as Viola. Barton also oversaw The Greeks, a mammoth 1980 adaptation of ten plays focusing on the Oresteia legend by Homer, Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. Working with playwright Kenneth Cavander and presented at the Aldwych Theatre, London, Barton’s staging focused on the tautness of each play’s original verse.
Such classical ambition was channelled later into Tantalus, Barton’s ten-play cycle based on the Trojan War, and which took him two decades to write. The end result, performed in Denver, Colorado after six months of rehearsal, lasted ten hours, and caused a schism between Barton and Hall, who Barton deemed to have made too many unnecessary cuts to his original text.
For all his classical sensibilities, without ever forcing the issue, Barton’s work helped shed light too on contemporary conflicts. An anthology of work drawn from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and Plato’s Socratic Dialogues was staged three times by the RSC. The first time was in 1967, when the Vietnam War was at its height; the second was revived as The War that Never Ends during the 1991 Gulf War. As The War That Still Goes On, the production was mounted in 2006, during the Iraq War. While a long way from propaganda, Barton’s constructions featured post-show discussions with the likes of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, and later featuring the likes of Germaine Greer and George Galloway. Even without such lively exchanges, the plays themselves became critical mirrors on political discourse in turbulent times. They were also monumental works of art.
John Barton was the son of Sir Harold Montague and Lady Barton (previously Joyce Wale), and was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. It was here he found his theatrical feet, acting and directing with various student drama societies, becoming president of the Cambridge University ADC. He became a fellow of King’s in 1954, but his destiny was diverted with the founding of the RSC in 1960.
The fusion of Barton’s academically inclined intelligence and rehearsal room practicalities didn’t initially bode well following a production of The Taming of the Shrew, when a cast featuring Peter O’Toole and Peggy Ashcroft mutinied, and Hall took over. In retrospect, and with workshopping and development now taken for granted as part of the theatrical infrastructure, Barton now appears to have been ahead of his time. This was the case too much later, when he went on record to state his belief that the contemporary speech patterns of those living in the Appalachian Mountains was closest to the accent used during Shakespeare’s time.
Over his forty years with the RSC, Barton directed more than fifty productions. In what was arguably the perfect match, in 1968, Barton married Anne Righter, a renowned scholar and critic on Shakespeare, and the pair were together until her passing in 2013.
Beyond any donnish airs, Barton brought a gift for accidental comedy to the rehearsal room. There are stories of him leaning so far back on his chair while giving notes to actors that he ended up in the orchestra pit or the stalls, only to continue with barely a beat to mark the incident.
It is Barton’s fierce intelligence as one of the world’s greatest authorities on Shakespeare that will mark his legacy the most. Arguably more than any other director, Barton dug deep into a canon sometimes feared as impenetrable. In this way he helped embody Shakespeare’s classical richness while at the same time enabling generations of actors to breathe fresh dramatic life into the plays that changed their interpretation forever.
Barton is survived by his sister, Jennifer. His wife Anne pre-deceased him in 2013.
The Herald, January 29th 2018