Sunday, July 10, 2005

05 Michael Redgrave

Hamlet played by Michael Redgrave
Directed by Sir Michael Redgrave

I've always imagined how Hamlet might sound if it was performed by the cast of the film Brief Encounter, all clipped English accents. Well I can wonder no longer because here it is. I don't know if Trevor Howard ever played the part, but Michael Redgrave is cut from the same jib, all freakish understatement. You're waiting for the sound and fury but it never comes. You can't tell if he's mad or disappointed. Perhaps if he'd had more time.

This production was created for something called the Living Shakespeare and published by for something called the Living Library on LP in the early sixties (which would account for the bright yellow cover) The whole canon seems have been released in this format and the idea is that listener would receive on a month in the same way as those dvd series which have turned up in WH Smith lately. They were cheap, US$3 each plus postage and packaging. Within a couple of years a household would have a whole set of performance to enjoy, which was quite innovative for the time. All very exciting. Except they're condensed. Each play, no matter the original source is but an hour long.

How short can the play be without becoming incomprehensible? This production probably takes us to the limits of the threshold. The text is reproduced in an accompanying booklet and fit on about ten pages. Act Two doesn't even fill a side. Act Five takes up a page and a half. But the font size is pretty big so it seems longer. It's actually quicker to list the scenes which do appear:

Hamlet tells Claudius what he thinks of him while his mother backs up her husband.
Horatio tells Hamlet about the ghost of his father.
Hamlet meets the ghost of his father who tells him about the murder.
Laertes leaves and Polonius gives him the 'Give thy thoughts no tongue:'
Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet and his daughter. And the letters.
'To be or not to be...'
Ophelia and Hamlet's argument.
The Mousetrap.
Hamlet confronts his mother and kills Polonius.
Ophelia goes mad.
Leartes returns looking for revenge.
Getrude tells Laertes than Ophelia's dead.
The tussle at the funeral.
The duel.
Everyone dies.

The gaps are bridged by minimal narration. It's a very unusual thing because it keeps the clarity of the story, rather than just keeping in the big speeches which is the usual approach with these things. Which isn't to suggest that if you'd never met the play before you'd have any idea what was going on. None of the characters have the psychological through line of a fuller production. Speaking of characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't just dead, they don't even exist in this world. Neither does Fortinbras (although he's usually missing in action anyway) or the gravedigger. It's more interesting as an intellectual exercise than a performance to enjoy. All the jokes have been taken out. My favourite moment? Hearing Valentine Dyall (who played the supercomputer Deep Thought in The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy and the Black Guardian in Doctor Who) giving his gravitas to The Ghost. Scary.

I listened to the lp of this recording on the 10th July 2005.