Sunday, April 10, 2005

02 Simon Russell Beale

Hamlet played by Simon Russell Beale
Directed by Clive Brill

There are generally three approaches to Shakespeare (and theatre for that matter) on audio -- recording the sound of a theatre production, creating a film without pictures, or producing a textual adaptation, in which the performances take a back seat to the performances. There is obviously some blurring of these approaches, but Clive Brill's production falls completely in the latter camp. It's the full text presented in a way which can be both heard and understood. Even if it renders it a bit slow in places.

It was worth hearing though, because for the first time I actually understood the sections of the play regarding Fortinbras. When cutting the play for production for performance the Norwegian is often the first to go, because the main domestic plot can happily play out without him. Which means on the odd occasion he and his invading army appear, I've often had trouble working out what they're doing there. I now know that Fortinbras Sr challenged Hamlet Sr in battle and was slain. Now Fortinbras Jr is throwing together a band of men to invade Denmark, partly out of vengeance but also to grab back lands which have been taken. I think.

The highlight is inevitably Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet. Something of an unsung actor (who some might remember as Widmerpool in Channel 4's adaption of Anothony Powell's A Dance To The Music of Time), he does stamp his ideas on the part and you get the feeling he's been wanting to express these ideas for years. It's a very regal version and you get the feeling that he would much rather go to Wittenberg than hang around the palace and the inevitable madness which will follow. But when he has to take the lead his dives straight in, convivial and excited. The venom with which he aproaches his enemies, especially, wierdly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who he has hardly any time for, fishing them out straight away) is excellent. You can see why he got the chance to repeat the role on stage at the Royal National Theatre in 2000 and a bit of a step up from second gravedigger which is the part he played in Ken Branagh's film version.

To be honest there are some pretty disappointing performances in here though. You would expect the late Bob Peck to inject some venom into Claudius, but instead he comes across as fairly pronderous, even generic, something that happens across the board. Perhaps the rule during this production was not to put too much of an interpretation on anything which might be fine if its to be used in study but does rather wring the passion out of it. Of the main cast, only Imogen Stubbs' Ophelia rises to the occasion, especially during her fall into madness.

The setting is simple, with subtle sound effects of wind or birds of echos depending on where the characters are. The specially composed music of Dominique Le Gendre is used to play in and out of scene and act breaks and although it's quite lovely, its deployment at times seems a bit random -- something booming before an intimate scene for example. Nothing earth shattering.

Which is unfortunately a good description of the production as a whole.

Listened to from a cassette on the 10th April 2005.

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