Monday, January 08, 2007

08 Paul Scofield

Hamlet played by Paul Scofield.
Directed by Howard Sackler.

What a chore. This is the first time I've begun writing about an audio production whilst I'm still listening to it simply because I don't want to spend more time even thinking about it than the duration. It's a shame, because it begins quite well with the atmospheric sound of waves as Horatio first hears of the ghostly reappearance of Hamlet Snr. The problem begins when Paul Scofield's Hamlet trots through. Scofield (who would later play the Ghost in Zeffirelli's film version) gives his performance in a declamatory style, reverential to the poetry. Almost every speech he gives happens almost as a broken whisper, in exactly the way I expected Shakespeare to be acted before I saw my first production, the BBC's 80s version of Measure for Measure (which I watched again the other day and continues to be the gold standard). I hope this show, recorded in 1963, isn't any school child's first exposure to the Bard because it could put them off for life.

Everyone else is speaking in a much more contemporary, fluid way and I might have imagined that two different productions had been edited together, Scofield dropped into something else where it not for the fact that whenever any of the big, famous speech arrives the rest of the cast have a habit of dropping into the same style; the directorial decision has no doubt been to emphasise these but it leads to moments, like the one that happens when Gertrude reveals Ophelia's suicide when there is an expectant pause as though the rest of the cast are waiting for the great moment. I understand that this was the rule in Shakespeare's day, and that often these things would be repeated for effect, but here it works against the drama. There's probably a really good production somewhere that makes a feature of expectant repetition but this isn't it.

The problem in this case with being reverential to the language is that it also reduces the pace of the story and draws it away from being the passionate discussion of the nature of humanity that I love. It is instead an exercise in presenting the words, and although those are great words, the drama is lost. The appearance of the Ghost, accompanied by the scratching of harp strings works quite well, but is quickly ruined because the actor playing Hamlet Snr, like Scofield, declares his way through it Churchill-like and the scene seems to continue forever sapping it of the shock and awe it really needs.

Perhaps I shouldn't be quite so harsh about the traditionalism -- this was recorded over forty years ago; it's just that I haven't yet heard a Polonius this daffy and old and lacking all the quite manipulation so evident in the text, particularly when he petitions Reynaldo. New King Claudius too doesn't come across as villainous enough; there is something to be said for his evil being obscured so that his crime is less likely to everyone, but he also needs to seem capable of his brother's murder and this Claudius really doesn't. This Horatio is very good, exhibiting some of the tragedy that this Hamlet lacks.

Neither of the women are particularly strong in this production. Ophelia is particularly naive and distant. Gertrude too, for once, sounds as though she was easily led by Claudius, and what for me is a key scene, whether Hamlet brings Gertude on the side of his cause after the death of Polonius is left entirely unclear. About the most affecting moments are when both allow the tragedy to wash over them and they simply descend into tears.

Inevitably, things are picking up towards the end. The Gravedigger's scene is lovely until Scofield puts on his big speech voice. One of the great features of the production is that this actually feels like a royal family, these are kings and queens and princes and princesses which is something many productions forget. The trumpets and orchestration between scenes help to emphasise this, although sometimes it isn't clear if they're supposed to be within the scene or just signaling the scene shift or both.

But in the best productions, there is a feeling as the duel descends of the end of an era, the break up the status quo. For me it's a but like thirteenth night, Christmas is over and the decorations are down and the feeling of comfort won't ever return. Hamlet's aware of this but soldiers on with all bravura, saying that he thinks he'll win, but secretly knowing that it can't go well. But that's missing here, with one of the most poignant speeches, 'The readiness is all...' whispered off musically. I've had enough. Fortinbras can't come quickly enough.


Unknown said...

You review a play before you've heard it. I take it you do not agree with Hamlet when he says over-acting destroys the sense of the play. Every word in the play is important. There's always more to get from it. Scofield is the best Hamlet.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Actually I'd heard the whole thing by the end of the review, which I think is clear by the fact that I offered comments right until the end.

It's a matter of taste I suppose. I understand that there are different acting styles and that in some audio productions in particular the text is declared to some extent to improve clarity.

What I loved about the version featuring Russell Beale is that it did that but also maintained the integrity of the story, which is something I didn't think happened in this Schofield.

But if you read the blog and the other reviews you'll see that I am simply giving my opinion, rightly or wrongly.

As I've written elsewhere, audio is never the best medium to 'see' these things but what I'm writing reflects what these ears are hearing. If Scholfield is the best Hamlet, perhaps seeing him in a production, should one become available will prove you right.

And you are right -- over acting can destroy the sense of the play, but it should also feel like an ensemble, the voices all following the same pitch which for me didn't happen in this particular production.

Have you heard this particular production?

Anonymous said...

Cast (selected):
Claudius - Roland Culver
Hamlet - Paul Scofield
Polonius - Charles Heslop
Horatio - Edward de Sousa
Laertes - Donald Houston
Gertrude - Diana Wynyard
Ophelia - Zena Walker
Ghost - Wilfred Lawson
1st Player/Player King - Robert Eddison
2nd Player/Player Queen, 2nd Gravedigger - Aubrey Woods
1st Gravedigger - Esmond Knight

Directed by Howard Sackler, produced for the Shakespeare Recording Society by Caedmon Records, 1963.