John Barton, Revelatory Shakespeare Director, Is Dead at 89

John Barton with the actress Janet Suzman at a rehearsal for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in London in 1965.

John Barton, a director who helped Peter Hall start the Royal Shakespeare Company and was widely regarded as one of the theater world’s foremost interpreters of Shakespeare, died on Thursday in West London. He was 89.

Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, announced the death, calling Mr. Barton “simply one of the greatest influences in the acting of Shakespeare of the last century.” No cause was given.

As a director and in the classes and workshops he taught, Mr. Barton was known for helping actors find the meaning in Shakespeare’s lines.

“There are few absolute rules about playing Shakespeare, but many possibilities,” he said in introducing “Playing Shakespeare,” a series of nine workshops recorded in 1982 by British television that are still regarded as among the definitive resources for Shakespearean actors. In 1984, he turned the workshops into a book, “Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide.”

Although Mr. Barton revered Shakespeare’s works and other classic plays, he was not afraid to experiment with them. He once rewrote “King John,” splicing in lines from other sources, including himself.

In 1963, working with Mr. Hall (who died in September), he condensed Shakespeare’s three “Henry VI” plays and “Richard III” and staged them under the title “The Wars of the Roses” at Stratford-upon-Avon. The production, a hit, put the fledgling Royal Shakespeare Company on the map.

John Bernard Adie Barton was born on Nov. 26, 1928, in London. His father, Harold, was an accountant; his mother was the former Joyce Wale. He was educated at Eton College and at King’s College, Cambridge, where he directed numerous student productions and, after graduating, became a fellow and lay dean. There he also met Mr. Hall, who was three years younger.

Credit...Pascal Moliere/Royal Shakespeare Company

By the end of the 1950s, Mr. Hall had begun to garner considerable attention as a director and had taken over the Shakespeare Memorial Theater at Stratford with ambitious plans. When he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, he asked Mr. Barton to help him get the troupe off the ground. Mr. Barton would go on to direct more than 50 productions there.

Mr. Doran cited his 1969 “Twelfth Night” (with a cast that included Judi Dench as Viola and Donald Sinden as Malvolio), his 1976 “Much Ado About Nothing” and his 1978 “Love’s Labour’s Lost” as among the most memorable.

Mr. Barton was also a writer and adapter. Among his most enduring creations was “The Hollow Crown,” a sort of sampler of British monarchs, which after its premiere by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 had a run on Broadway in 1963, with Mr. Barton in the cast. Howard Taubman, writing in The New York Times, called it “an ingratiating entertainment of immense theatrical flare.” The company revived it as recently as 2005.

Mr. Barton, though, did not limit himself to Shakespeare or British themes. Among his most ambitious projects was “The Greeks,” a nine-hour production spread over three evenings that adapted 10 plays by Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Homer to tell the story of the Trojan War.

“I love the contradictions,” Mr. Barton told The Times, describing his fascination with the subject matter. “Apollo is the god of reason and unreason. Clytemnestra turns from the loving wife into the husband-killer. The contradictions give the cycle a certain coherence of life.”

He defended the mash-up of various texts.

“Some people will be horrified,” he said, “but I don’t think we’ve twisted the spirit of the plays. I hate the clichés of updating the classics. Helen doesn’t wear sunglasses. But she can anoint herself with modern suntan lotion, because the Greeks anointed themselves with oil.”

Mr. Barton married Anne Righter in 1969. She died in 2013. The company’s announcement listed no survivors.

In a foreword to Mr. Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare” book, Trevor Nunn, who became artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968, recalled Mr. Barton’s reputation in the early 1960s: “hilariously absent-minded, obsessed with cricket, a chain smoker, an expert on Napoleon and somebody who enjoyed working 16 hours a day without a break.”

Then, Mr. Nunn continued, he had a chance to work closely with Mr. Barton on a production of “Henry V.” “For six weeks of the rehearsal period,” Mr. Nunn wrote, “I became the world expert on John’s absent-mindedness, I came to love the 16-hour day (I was already O.K. on cricket and Napoleon), and I learned more about unlocking a Shakespeare text than any scholarship could have taught me.”

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