"Since the news of John Barton’s death yesterday, I have been inundated with messages from colleagues and friends. I thought I would share them with John’s wider public." Gregory Doran

Ian McKellen

“I knew John at Cambridge - me an acting undergraduate, John the lay Dean of King’s College and director of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Three Sisters.

At my audition for the Amateur Dramatic Club - the portal into undergrad theatre - my pieces were reviled by the listening committee. BUT John B was taken with my old man Billy Rice from The Entertainer and overruled the rest, otherwise I would never have acted in Cambridge or anywhere else subsequently.

Later that academic year he cast me as Justice Shallow, for which I copied exactly his performance that I think he’d given at Eton (oh that charm!). I got rave reviews and decided to become a pro.

Years later, I repeated it all in Middle Earth.”

Trevor Nunn

(appointed RSC Artistic Director 1968)

“I feel a vast sense of loss. I could join you in finding a testimony from within the text of Antony and Cleopatra – which he never did, despite my urging:

There is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.”

Ian McKellen with robe, and staff kneels open-mouthed on stage as Leontes
Ian McKellen as Leontes in The Winter's Tale, 1976, directed by John Barton with Trevor Nunn.
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images
Gertrude clutches Hamlet in despair while Hamlet looks pained
Michael Pennington as Hamlet confronting Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Gertrude about his father's death, Hamlet, 1980, directed by John Barton.
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images

Michael Pennington

Hamlet was the climax of several years of John’s obstinate championing of me in the course of which he fought off several of his colleagues on the Directorate who would happily have seen the part go elsewhere.

Anyway John was ready to resign if he didn’t have his way. And I’m forever indebted to him, as you can imagine - a beloved friend and a great spirit gone.” 

Professor James Shapiro

“One of the giants of the Shakespeare world.”

David Suchet

“When I heard, my heart literally dropped into the pit of my stomach leaving a big hole. His influence on me as an actor is truly immeasurable. He taught me SO much.”

Roger Allam

“One thing I remember when I went to see him about Macbeth and we were both drunk, I asked him who he'd really like to cast as Macbeth. "Gene Hackman." Now there's a great idea.

He was part of the bricks and mortar of the RSC but his influence on us all stays with us.”

Professor Sir Stanley Wells

“Such a lovely man and a great director.”

Shylock sits on a ornate chair in court with the scales of justice in front of him
David Suchet as Shylock in the court scene, The Merchant of Venice, 1981, directed by John Barton.
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images

Hugh Quarshie

"No-one who ever worked with John Barton is ever likely to forget him.  Playing Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus was my introduction to the RSC, as it was for a number of the younger actors, including Peter Chelsom, Peter Land, Diana Hardcastle, Nigel Le Vaillant and Roger Allam. The double bill took its toll on John too and, exhausted after the first preview, he asked Trevor Nunn to step in and re-stage the production. I remember seeing him slumped in a seat in the old auditorium as Trevor spoke, my compassion bolstered by respect for his integrity: he seemed beyond ego, concerned more with the power and truth of the theatrical experience, and not afraid to admit that he had on this occasion fallen short...  

Four prisoners lie hurt in the foreground while Titus stands behind them on a cart wearing armour
Hugh Quarshie as Aaron (left), with the Queen of the Goths Tamora (Sheila Hancock) and her sons, Alarbus (Peter Chelsom) and Roger Allam (Demetrius), with Titus (Patrick Stewart) watching over them. Titus Andronicus, 1981, directed by John Barton.
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images

...Working with John was indeed an education in theatrical reality, if not life and behaviour outside the theatre. Like Cicely Berry, he seemed part of the fabric of the RSC. With his shaggy beard, nicotine-stained fingers, food-stained tie, eternal cardigan and bad posture, he seemed entirely eccentric and even unworldly; but cloistered in the theatre though he was, he nevertheless combined scholarly erudition with penetrating psychological and behavioural insights.  

For an Edwardian gentleman, he was surprisingly clued in. That we can talk about the universality of Shakespeare or ‘contemporary’ Shakespeare is in large part down to Peter Hall and John Barton.

Shakespeare owes them, John in particular, a huge debt."

Harriet Walter as Masha in Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, here with Deborah Findlay as Olga and Stella Gonet as Irina, 1988, directed by John Barton.
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images

Harriet Walter

"His influence on the way we act Shakespeare is incalculable.

So much so that most people now take for granted his teachings and have absorbed his methods. The younger ones may not know that John was the fountainhead, the older ones can’t imagine a world before Barton.

From the RSC actors of the 1960s to the young actors who most recently had the one-to-one experience with him, John basically gave 50 years worth of masterclasses and that is leaving aside his memorable productions.

He did all this with very little fuss and fanfare.”

Terry Hands

(appointed RSC Artistic Director 1986)

“One of the founding fathers of the RSC. The kindest and the wisest.”


Oliver Ford Davies

“Those who expected John to be academic and conceptual in his approach found him pragmatic and hands on - in fact he deliberately avoided writing about Shakespeare. He liked and admired actors and was always gentle and encouraging, and inspired great loyalty in those who trusted him.” 

Patrick Stewart

(As published in The Guardian)

"On a cold, wet, November Sunday evening in 1965 I plodded nervously across the Bancroft Gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon. I had at last been accepted to audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company, although a Sunday evening would not have been my occasion of choice. It came about because I was in rep at the Bristol Old Vic Company and Sunday was my only day off to make the trip to Stratford. Nevertheless, I would have preferred the afternoon but, what the hell, they were seeing me and I had waited four years for this day to arrive...

A nearly naked Oberon stands on stage with staff while pick kneels in front of him
Patrick Stewart as Oberon and Leonard Preston as Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1977, directed by John Barton.
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images

...A puzzled stage door man let me in and directed me to the stage, which I recall was entirely bare, like the auditorium, except for three indistinct figures sitting half way back in the gloomy stalls. A voice called out "Hello, Patrick. Stay where you are we'll come to you." Out of the gloom emerged the instantly recognisable Artistic Director of the RSC, Peter Hall and his Casting Director, Maurice Daniels, who was, arguably, the most significant as he had arranged this audition. The third man, dark-haired, bearded and smoking, I did not recognise. Peter said, "You know Maurice, of course but perhaps not John Barton?" True, I had only the vaguest memory of seeing his name in the reviews for The Wars of the Roses, then in the RSC repertoire. "So, what are you going to do for us?" What was I going to do? Before I replied I suddenly doubted my choice of audition speech...Henry V before the battle of Agincourt. Dammit, of course, it was currently in the RSC repertoire in London, with the magnificent Ian Holm in the eponymous role. What was I thinking? Well, I gulped and told them, and with somewhat raised eyebrows Peter and the other two made their way back into the stalls and away I went. "What's he that wishes so? My cousin Westmorland? No, my fair cousin, wish not a man from England." The long speech went fleeting by and at last I was vehemently speaking "...that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day."

Peter and John Barton, in the deadly silence that ensued, got up and walked up onto the stage. Peter said, "Thank you, Patrick, thank you. John?" John? I wanted to hear what Peter Hall had to say but the smoker was already stroking his beard and looking at me inquisitively. "Alright, love, do it again, only this time why not change the mood somewhat. Something different." No director had ever suggested that to me before. Something different? Alright, I'll make Henry angry... and I did. The smoke cloud spoke: "Good. Now, something different, old love." In that moment, I got it. They know I can act, that's not why we are here. But can I change, take direction, that's what this is about. Yes, if that's what they want, I f***ing can. 

I did it twice more, choosing extremes of mood, emotion, objective. And it was over. I vaguely remember Peter saying, "Thank you, thank you very much, we'll be in touch. Can you find your way out?"

I was invited into the company but how could I know that I would spend the next twelve years of my life - and beyond - on that stage? Nor that the bearded smoker, along with Peter Hall, Peter Brook, Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands, was to play the most significant role in my entire career.

John was an academic and his intellectual insights into Shakespeare's texts were beautiful and brilliant but mostly it was his openness, generosity, kindness and motivation that inspired me, as well as the belief I always felt from him that what he asked for I could do. That, and scores of other reasons, some intimate, were the motivating energy behind so much of my work since, not only Shakespeare but Star Trek: The Next Generation, X Men and much more. 

For John I did productions of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus and The Hollow Crown. He showed me the landscape of great writing and the place performance had in it. He touched everything in my career, beginning with that November night in Stratford.

One final anecdote.

When I played Shylock in his production of The Merchant of Venice at The Warehouse (now Donmar Warehouse) he asked me to stay behind after a performance he had seen. We sat side by side on the edge of the stage and he said; "It's very good, old love, very good. You're playing all the shots; you're driving to the off and the on side, you're late cutting and sweeping to leg, you're nicking it over the slips. Marvellous. What you're not doing is driving the ball back over the bowler's head."

Thank you, John. You gave me an objective, a purpose, an image, an intent I still pursue today."

Judi Dench

"How lucky we were to have learnt so much from him.”

Beatrice sits on a table smiling at Benedick who is seated with crossed legs
Judi Dench as Beatrice and Donald Sinden as Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, 1976, directed by John Barton.
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images

Jane Woolfenden

(widow of Guy Woolfenden, RSC Head of Music 1963-1998)

"Oh dear - I have a very heavy heart. But Gregory Doran's tribute certainly brought back hundreds of amazing memories."

Bill Wilkinson

(ex-Financial Controller of the RSC)

“A wonderful, inspiring colleague and true friend and most of all, an inspiration in nurturing the RSC. The Richard II Greg mentioned was a turning point for me: I despaired of our situation with our funding bodies at the time and, rather than go home depressed, I hung around and saw the production again standing at the back of the Aldwych and determined: that is why we do it ! This Company has to survive - and I stuck around for another 26 years in the company of John.”

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