Two actors and their epic search to find the secrets of Shakespeare

Understanding the Bard can be hard, as stars of the stage and screen confess in a new film
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"He was not of an age but for all time" – so spoke Ben Jonson of the "Sweet Swan of Avon" and the timeless pleasure to be found in Shakespeare's verse. That statement, a line from a long poem written in 1623 to commend the first folio of his friend's plays, is itself among the most enduring in literary criticism.

Yet two actors seeking to pin down the "greatness" of Shakespeare have found that the value of his plays in the contemporary world, and how best to approach them, remains a moot point among actors, audiences and aficionados.

The pair, seasoned actors versed in the Bard's poetry and prose, embarked on a self-funded odyssey around the globe filming a documentary exploring differing takes on Shakespeare. Hollywood and stage actors, theatre directors and audiences contributed.

Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, Fiona Shaw and Dame Helen Mirren have all offered their thoughts on how best to approach Shakespeare's verse for contemporary audiences.

The two actors behind it, Dan Poole and Giles Terera, hope that Muse of Fire, which is in the final stages of production, will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival and at Cannes next year.

The duo met at drama school and this week are promoting the film at the Cannes Film Festival. To make the documentary, they spent two and a half years travelling around Europe and Hollywood. They visited schools in Britain and even a prison in Dublin.

They accompanied Jude Law to Denmark's Elsinore Castle where he performed Michael Grandage's Hamlet. They journeyed across America in search of fans of the Bard, and discovered that he has a high standing in Japan, where a perfect replica of the Globe Theatre has been built.

They also visited the replica of Blackfriars Theatre – Shakespeare's small auditorium in the City of London – in Staunton, Virginia, and attended quirky performances by theatre companies, including one in which the actors asked the audience to choose the cast minutes before a performance of Hamlet.

The 70 contributors also included Ewan McGregor, who appeared in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse three years ago, the Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who won plaudits for his modern reworking of Romeo + Juliet, and the film actor Ian Ogilvy, best known for his role in the cult Seventies television series The Saint. Their key question: how to overcome the fear of performing Shakespeare.

McGregor admitted: "I found reading it quite difficult," when taking on the role of Othello's plotting enemy Iago in the Donmar's 2007 production, while Ogilvy conceded that he had no time for Shakespeare.

A group of inmates from a high-security prison performed Julius Caesar with great enthusiasm and emotion when Mr Poole and Mr Terera held workshops there. James Earl Jones, best known as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars, spoke animatedly for nearly two hours about performing Shakespeare and even invited the actors back for another chat.

Mr Poole, who performed in the Royal Court's acclaimed recent play Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, said that playing Shakespeare's major roles is often the greatest ambition for any serious theatre actor who aspires to tread the boards in Stratford-upon-Avon, but it was also one that inspired the most fear and intimidation in an actor.

"It is the ultimate stamp on you as an actor," he said. "It has a high-art reputation, but it's also low art and that's what gets lost in many people's understanding of it. Actors performing the plays in Shakespeare's time were just ordinary people."

Mr Terera, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the Globe and at the National Theatre, said many of their interviewees felt that Shakespeare had "become an academic and intellectual thing". "The way we learn it in classrooms gives us a lot of baggage, both to the public watching it and actors performing it," he said. "We feel we have to be intelligent to watch it, and to perform it. It can be a real block."

Both men hope the documentary will help audiences to come to a freer – and less reverential – understanding of the man Jonson acclaimed as "Soul of the age!/The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!".

Breaking down the barriers to the Bard

Ewan McGregor

"I believe it has to be read out loud to be helpful. Especially for children. Don't try and complicate it any further or pressure yourself by saying, 'Shit, it's Shakespeare.' Much better getting up and trying it. When I first started reading it I did feel somewhat at sea. I mean, I found reading it quite difficult. I've always found that about acting, I'm much better getting up and doing it. That's the best way of working out which way you should be heading."

Baz Luhrmann

"My singular focus, as Shakespeare's singular focus was, was to connect with his audience. He's a prodigy with language. He's a riffer and a jiver... Am I talking about William Shakespeare or Eminem? Because it's the same essentially. Where did that ability come from? If something is classic it's fundamentally there because it has and will have the power to effect. Once it's revealed to you, you realize – and this is the most profoundly beautiful thing about it – Shakespeare isn't some distant God, he's a guy. Sure he's gifted, but the more the language is revealed, the more fantastic it is."

James Earl Jones

"With Shakespeare emotion is a very important part of it, but the thing is not to let the emotion obstruct the rhythm and vice versa. Because the rhythm helps move the speech along. If you can get those two things together you've got a pretty good delivery, I think."

Peter Brook

"For verse speaking the vital questions can only be solved through trial and error."

Ian Ogilvy

"I have never felt the need to champion Shakespeare, but that's not to say it doesn't have its worth, it's just not my thing. I never enjoyed performing it, and there is nothing worse than watching a bad Shakespeare production."

John Barton (co-founder of the RSC lecture)

"I don't much like lecturing – I'd rather you all get up and try a bit. If I could, I would ban use of the words 'iambic pentameter'. I find they don't help actors very much. What we are talking about is common sense."

Bonnie Greer

"My method of teaching Shakespeare to inner city kids and folks afraid of him is this – I don't tell them it's him. I pick a speech or a scene, known only to me, but I get the actors to write a monologue or scene in their words. I lay out the scenario. They improvise the scene, then, well, we'll make a small play out of this... and I get people to break down their walls."