The Essential Shakespeare: Live (2005).

When Gregory Doran was announced as the new director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the general reaction was, “Of course he is.” For all his work elsewhere, apart from Michael Boyd, he’s the person most associated with the company in recent years and it’s of little surprise that when in 2005 the British Library decided to celebrate its massive archive of Shakespeare recordings collected across five decades, it was decided that he’d be the perfect man to select the clips. Across two discs, Doran carefully curates iconic productions which haven’t been released in any form, featuring Dench, Richardson, McKellan, Ashcroft, Rickman, Stewart and Sher.

There aren't any particularly left of field choices, no chunk of Cymbeline. That’s because a large proportion of productions in the Swan weren’t recorded and none at all at The Other Place, the usual venues for the less popular plays. As Doran notes, he had wanted to included Paul Scofield as Timon, but it’s lost forever. Theatre’s a transient medium and so we should probably just be pleased with what we have. But our frustration is that these are just fragments, In an ideal world we could all be Gregory Doran and be able to hear the whole of these productions ourselves, however poor the sound quality.

Act III, Scene I

”To Be Or Not To Be”

Hamlet: David Warner
Director: Peter Hall

Hamlet’s represented by Peter Hall’s legendary mid-60s production with David Warner in the title role, a revolutionary attempt to speak very specifically to youngsters and contemporary politics. In the programme notes, Hall suggested his Hamlet was “about the disillusionment which produces apathy of the will so deep that commitment to politics, to religion or to life is impossible”.  He also wanted to isolate Hamlet as much as possible with Horatio losing seventy-five key lines,  reducing to an acquaintance the friendship that’s otherwise a necessary tether to reality for the Prince.

Every copy of the text which bothers with a production history agree that it is one of the great innovative milestones. Of primary importance in relation to this clip is Hall’s decision to have Hamlet conduct his soliloquy’s from the edge of the stage into the audience, a piece of artifice which was still rare enough to be misconstrued by contemporary critics as Warner’s own “inexperience” rather than a valid approach to communicating the text and has become the norm in some venues especially the reconstructed Globe. It’s reputed that “One night, when Warner asked ‘Am I a coward?” someone shouted, “Yes!” (Arden 3, p24).

It worked. As the RSC edition reports a youthful audience camped outside the theatre for tickets.  But what must it have been like to be in that audience and have Warner ask the big question on everyone’s mind using words written around four hundred years earlier?  The day before this was recorded (at the Aldwych Theatre in London on the 9th March 1966), the U.S. had announces it would be substantially increasing the number of its troops in Vietnam, a decision which was being protested throughout the world and although the cold war had reached détente, obliteration was still an ever present possibility.

The electricity of the performance is evident in the clip. Cars can be heard passing by outside which demonstrates just how small the venue must have been, Warner having to really project, fighting for his words to be heard, which apt considering the how some of the youth watching will have thought about their place in society.  That audience is also very present, with faint female mutterings beneath the opening of the speech, coughs, someone opening a sweet, chair squeaks and a door clattering, all of which serve to give the recording even greater atmosphere, the magic of a live event, a humanity, which doesn’t exist in the blank, null setting of a recording studio.

“Who would bare the … whips and scorns of time?” The key moment in this reading is this pause in which we're not certain whether Warner is grasping for his next line or Hamlet trying to find the right word to communicate his point. As the speech continues its very clear it’s the latter, that Warner is almost asking his audience for an answer, as though they’ll finish the sentences for him.  Knowing what we know about Hall’s intentions, it’s also possible to hear this Hamlet holding himself up to the audience as a mirror saying, look at this, look what happens when you become as apathetic as I am, gripped by fear of the unknown.

For all that, it’s still a relatively aristocratic performance which is surprising to me since I’d heard comparisons with his turn in the thematically similar Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment in which he’s very specifically Northern.  It’s also reputedly naturalistic, but Warner still keeps an eye on the rhythm of the pentameter for all his observance of the punctuated pauses.  Perhaps that’s one of the frustrations of hearing just a fragment of a whole performance.  A single speech, however famous, is just a small part of a whole character arc and thought process. Hopefully at some point we will be able to hear the whole show and be able to judge it properly.

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