Hamlet played by John Gielgud.
Directed by Michael Benthall *.
Listen to enough audio Hamlets in quick succession, as I have in this past week or so, despite the decades between recordings, and indeed despite the subtle differences in performance amongst the primary cast members, certain patterns, presumably due to theatrical tradition do emerge. Osric is usually effeminate. The Gravediggers mainly have outrageously rich regional accents, favouring cockney, sometimes welsh. Most often, when Fortinbras bids the soldiers shoot, they rarely do, the gunpowder replaced by a drum beast lest it damage the speakers.
So whenever something outrageously different happens, you really sit up and take notice. I’ll delve into the guts of this classic Old Vic production in a bit, but for a moment lets play with the packaging. Firstly, it has a narrator. John Rye appears throughout orientating the listener to the action to wit, the Gravedigger “Throws up bones and the occasional skull” (nice detail that) and listing the players in each given new scene “Meanwhile, Claudius and Laertes consult”.
The effect is rather like listening to some ancient recording of a radio commentary for a football match or if you’re that way inclined those cd releases of lost except on audio Doctor Who stories where a former companion fills in the gaps. Now and than Rye will even provide some extra context. In the early “council meeting” we’re advised that Hamlet is the “late king’s son. His claim to the succession has been overridden and he is not part of the council.” Between Acts One and Two we're told “Two months have passed.” That’s the first bit of excitement.
The second and indeed the one which led me to shout out happens at the top of Act 4, scene 5 when Rye intones, “Ophelia enters carrying a lute”. “A lute!” I shouted and having just read the recent Arden edition about the first Quarto and how the stage directions have impacted on later production, I shouted again “Q1’s lute!” which doesn’t sound syntactically possible, but it really is. Welcome to my world, right now. And sure enough Yvonne Mitchell’s otherwise fairly shrill Ophelia gives us a song or two which is close as the play gets to being a musical unless it's been recomposed by Ambrose Thomas.
A taping of the 1957 Old Vic Company production which is generally ignored in favour of the 40s recording done from the stage (the one featured in the Michael Almereyda film with Ethan Hawke and released by NAXOS). This is the version which is available on Spotify although the cassette I have sitting in front of me was released by Listening For Pleasure in 1977 and says misleadingly “playing time approx 2 hours” which it is give or take another couple of hours being a complete recording of an augmented Folio. Perhaps whoever did the art back then was under the impression it was an abridgement.
Either way, initially it seemed as though I was going to feel every one of those hours. The RP delivery kicks in within moments of the howling wind on the battlements and yet, even though this a production done for clarity rather than raw emotion (or perhaps because of it) the three and a half hours passed far more quickly than for the Renaissance Branagh. That left me an emotional wreck. This on the other hand left me noticing all kind of textual idiosyncrasies and seemed more like an intellectual journey.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I hadn’t considered before, for example, that no one actually tells Hamlet that Claudius is sending him to England even though he mentions it to his mother in the closet. Presumably the message has been passed in the meantime, but by whom, and when? Similarly, Claudius is very concerned about how his family’s trials seem to the general public. The initial reason he’s sending Hamlet to England is to convalesce and even after Polonius’s manslaughter, he’s keen to continue that impression:
I have sent to seek him, and to find the body.That’s the cult of celebrity right there, and the reason why VIPs seem to always receive less punishment in the eyes of the law. And this is a very regal family; the actor’s voices alone lay on the trappings of royalty and the impression of a once great household eating itself from within.
How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!
Yet must not we put the strong law on him:
He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes;
And where tis so, the offender's scourge is weigh'd,
But never the offence. To bear all smooth and even,
This sudden sending him away must seem
Deliberate pause: diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.
Gielgud’s performance does nothing to dissuade that. Having already played the part on a number of occasions since his debut at the Old Vic in 1929, he was already in his fifties at the time of this production (which was made when he’d just been engaged as leading man at the theatre) and the recognisable lispy antiquity has already begun to develop. If someone becomes synonymous with a role, does it change with each production or do the rest of the cast simply react to the star turning up to do their turn? Initially it seems as though he’s simply keen to go through the expected motions, the unhurried verbiage, the shaky trill during the set speeches, everything that’s expected of this Shakespearean who straddled across generations of different acting traditions.
He doesn’t even seem much madder after he’s met the Ghost than before and indeed he’s much the same figure even during the Fishmonger. Then, electrically, from almost nowhere, he finally bursts with passion during “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave” barking “Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!” with breathtaking vigour. Gielgud’s been modulating his emotion. He knows that if he begins with despair (as both Branagh and Tennant do later) if you’re not careful, you have nowhere else to go. Best to save it and frighten the audience (or in this case listener) out of their wits.
I think in this case he's taken the same view of the character as John Caird (who directed the 2000 RSC Simon Russell Beale) who suggests in the recent RSC edition that purely on a script basis, Hamlet's the sanest person in Elsinore, and any actor that begins to act the madness is working against the text. As everyone about him finds themselves in mad situations and react madly too, Hamlet is rational and becomes saner and saner as the play progresses and Gielgud's performance almost proves that. Even when Hamlet kills Polonius it's a defensive manoeuvre. He doesn't kill Claudius because is moral code forbids it. Laertes says he would kill someone in a chapel in an instant.
As for to the rest of the cast, Peter Coke (best known as Paul Temple on the radio) gives an emotionally complex Laertes who’s genuinely touching as he watches his sister’s sanity fall away. As Horatio, Jack Gwillim (Poseidon in Clash of the Titans) presents the stand up bloke, good in a fight, loyal. But the most fun are John Woodvine and Derek New as a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are Claudius’s lapdogs from the start, tersely dealing with Hamlet without a hint of loyalty like they’ve walked in from a Le Carré novel, entirely impatient when Hamlet breaks off from their passage to England to have a chat with the Captain and obviously clear about what their mission is about. When Hamlet has them killed, for once, you share his lack of remorse . . .
* The box neglects to mention who the director is. Michael Benthall directed Gielgud in a number of plays at the Old Vic at the time so I'm *assuming* it was him, but if you know different please correct me.