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Shakespeare for Boomers: Veteran actor brings solo show to Gibsons

Rodger Barton's Doris, Will and Me is coming to the Heritage Playhouse on Oct. 6, 7 and 8.
Rodger Barton, seen in the throes of his one-man Shakespeare revue, will appear in Gibsons in October.

A veteran actor with a knack for boiling down Shakespeare’s verbosity plans to present a one-man literary pageant in Gibsons.

Rodger Barton’s Doris, Will and Me is more than a lively collage of William Shakespeare’s greatest hits. Barton, who lives in West Vancouver, has crafted the work specifically to appeal to members of the Baby Boom generation.

“I decided to really go for Boomers, for my age group, for people who still have their marbles because they’re literate,” said Barton. “They had to go through the Shakespeare horrors when they were kids and they do remember some of the stories. And they’re really good listeners.”

Barton’s performance tells his own life story and his evolving relationship with Shakespeare’s works. The Doris of the title refers to his mother, whose creative spark kindled Barton’s hunger for literature before he spent seven years doing backbreaking labour in B.C. logging camps. 

He made the leap from foliage to folios by studying theatre at the University of BC and completing a two-year acting program at the Bristol Old Vic, which has been operating longer than any other playhouse in the English-speaking world.

During a 30-year career as an instructor and professional actor, Barton spent seven seasons with Ontario’s Stratford Festival, where he appeared alongside British actors like Brian Bedford, Maggie Smith, and Peter Ustinov.

While coaching students for the stage, Barton recognized a need for abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays. He rearranged blank verse from its original stanza form (which he believes leads to stilted performance) into logical units of thought. Together with his lifelong friend Keith Knight, Barton distilled a dozen of the best-known plays, reducing their bulk by an average of 25 per cent and selling the resulting reductions (branded as “Shakespeare Out Loud”) worldwide.

“When I moved [from Ontario to the West Coast] I just wanted a bigger canvas,” he said. “So I let the whole thing go for free. And for the first few years I was getting like 1,200 downloads a month of plays. It’s not so much now, but I’ll still wake up in the morning and see that Italy has taken Romeo and Juliet, or the Sudan wants Macbeth.”

During COVID-19 lockdowns, Barton decided to learn and film a collection of 35 Shakespearean monologues. The resulting videos are catalogued on his YouTube channel, ready to help scholars and performers hear words spoken trippingly on the tongue of a seasoned player.

In Doris, Will and Me, Barton performs passages notable for oratorical resonance (“All the world’s a stage,” muses Jacques in As You Like It) or technical complexity, like the longest soliloquy in Shakespeare’s works: the Duke of Gloucester’s address from Henry VI, Part Three. Barton twice assumes the role of love-addled Juliet, and instructs the audience in 52 key Shakespearean phrases.

Barton’s opinion of the 94-year-old Heritage Playhouse in Gibsons prompted him to schedule three performances at the venue. “I find the acoustics just gorgeous. For my particular show that’s so rich in language, I just can’t wait to get there and play the angles of that place.”

Performances of Doris, Will and Me are scheduled on Oct. 6, 7 and 8. Tickets are available online via Eventbrite’s local listings.