Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Audio Early Modern Drama: A Proposal.

With some time to spare I'm spending this week listening to Vivat Rex, the twenty-six part BBC Radio series which utilises a range of Early Modern plays, mostly from Shakespeare to offer a chronicle of the English crown from 1307 to 1533, from Edward II to Elizabeth I.

One of its great joys, other than the rather epic cast list, is that it includes within its make up sections of Edward III, Thomas of Woodstock, The Famous Victories of Henry V and John Ford's Perkin Warbeck in what may be their only radio outings, providing useful context to the action within Shakespeare's more famous plays.

Finally we can understand Henry IV's fear that his son Hal, by loafing around with Falstaff is repeating the mistakes of his predecessors Edward II and Richard II (albeit without the homo-erotic subtext of their acolytes) and that Richard's "hollow crown" speech is a near synopsis of the action in Edward III, including the appearance of a "ghost".

Listening to these rarities reminded of a proposal I wrote a few months ago suggesting that an audio or radio company produce a line of full text adaptations of just these kinds of rarely produced early modern dramas so that an interested public might be able to experience the work which was around at the time Shakespeare wrote the dozen or so plays which are constant production.

Disclosure: I did send a version of this to a company but it wasn't something they were really interested in doing which was understandable since its not necessarily a sure fire winner and would need to be planned and executed careful if it's to work as a business proposition.  I wouldn't know where to begin myself even.  It probably needs an existing production infrastructure and some hope.

I know that some people aren't fans of audio but it offers two benefits.  Firstly it's relatively cheap in comparison to video at least in production terms and from an artistic perspective since this would potentially be the only copy of the play available, the idea would be to follow ArkAngel's lead and produce something which emphasises the text.

Anyway, on with the proposal:

Audio Early Modern Drama: A Proposal.


Lesser known plays by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries as audio productions.


William Shakespeare is back in focus this year thanks to the Cultural Olympiad with a season of programmes on the BBC and the World Shakespeare Festival across a number of venues. But he’s largely receiving the lone genius treatment even though he was influenced by earlier playwrights, was part of a thriving theatre community collaborating with others and would go on to influence writers within just a few years.

Writers like John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Thomas Middleton, Philip Massinger, John Ford, John Webster and George Chapman were once household names, some of them collaborating with Shakespeare and succeeding him during his retirement and although some of their work is produced its not in the same bulk as Shakespeare and treated as something of a novelty by comparison.

Except that’s also true of some of Shakespeare’s own plays too especially in the late period, which ran rather further than the conclusion of The Tempest suggests. Collaborations which thanks to the latest techniques are becoming considered part of the canon, Sir Thomas More, Edward III, Arden of Faversham and Double Falsehood (or Cardenio) are again not accessibly available to watch or listen to outside of the theatre despite their high curiosity factor.

All which became abundantly clear last year when I was reviewing Arden Shakespeare’s own Early Modern Drama series and found myself unable to source recordings of these plays so that I could experience them in performance rather than simply as scripts. All are filled with extraordinary poetry but none of them can truly be understood or enjoyed without an actor’s intent behind the words and a directorial thought process interpreting the story and themes, especially by laypeople like me.


That these plays be turned into audios on cd or for download, bringing together actors with the high production values.  Advertised correctly these should draw a curious general audience, one which is already eagerly seeking out what material is available in their local theatre. But of course there would be students and academics wanting to access high quality recordings of these plays especially those for which there is either only a single option or none at all.


The scripts are obviously already written. Editorial choices would be in which texts to produce and preparing those scripts. I’m obviously unaware of budgets, but a writer’s fee (since these are four hundred year old plays) could be ploughed into the cost of the pre-recording rehearsal time which must be required

The texts could be those already in circulation through academic publishers, a collaboration which could go as far as branding the releases to tie-in with the books already available allowing for cross promotion, perhaps even utilising the same artwork:

With the plays also being sold through their website and through the audio producers, perhaps even as a set containing cd/download and book.

The trick would be to produce the Shakespearean curiosities along with the other work. An experimental series of four or six to test the market and then on from there. A Shakespeare collaboration, a Marlowe, a Beaumont and Fletcher, perhaps a Webster. A tie-in with Arden for example, would mean these choices are already made.


Of the complete or near-complete Shakespeare works available only the ArkAngel production of The Two Noble Kinsman is already available, but the others listed above are under produced. Of the others, even the better known playwrights, Kit Marlowe or Ben Jonson’s greatest plays, some of them on school curriculums, have no unabridged audio productions available.

There are amateur crowd-sourced productions online if you know where to look, but not professional and not consistent. Shakespeare’s Globe has monthly series of this material called “Read or Dead” but as yet none of it is available outside their library’s archive. Modern productions of this material even on BBC radio is rare (most often the Drama on 3 slot of the kind already downloadable) and usually heavily abridged.


This could become a very exciting series for whichever company accepts the challenge, taking their work into new markets and creating a legacy of material which could have commercial potential for years to come.

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