Hamlet played by Patrick Wymark.
Directed by George Rylands.
In the late 50s and early 1960s, under the auspices of the British Council to increase understanding of Shakespeare abroad, the Marlowe Dramatic Society, a theatre group for Cambridge University students aided by professional actors, set about recording all of Shakespeare’s plays for release by the Argo label initially on vinyl (in mono and stereo!) and later cassette. I first encountered them at school when researching my A-Level at the Central Library in Liverpool, shelves full of records in austere blue boxes with Liverpool City Council emblazoned on them in gold lettering (which I know for sure because when they were sold off years later I managed to buy their copy of Measure for Measure). I have a memory from the 1990s of listening to their production of Cymbeline, copy of a complete works in my lap. I remember enjoying the language but not really understanding the plot. Having listened to Cymbeline again in a different version over the summer, I'm not sure my appreciation has much changed.
The Hamlet has a few useful points of interest. The Ghost’s appearance is heralded by a peel of what sounds like trumpets which saps it of any sense of “mystery” but does at least underscore the regality of Hamlet’s father. I’ve not been able to find a complete cast list, but I’m sure it’s Derek Jacobi’s voice which can be heard as Fortinbras’s Captain, which would make sense since he’s an alumni of the Marlowe Society. The female player sounds like Judi Dench and Osric could be Kenneth Williams. Whoever’s playing Polonius interprets the man as the ancient old dodderer who appears in countless illustrations with his lengthy beard, which makes little sense in the context of the moment when he sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Oh and the duel is intercut with the sounds of battle and a peel of trumpets to indicate the encroachment of Fortinbras’s army, a rare audio addition which prefigures the Branagh film.
Unfortunately elsewhere, like so many of these Marlowe productions this is an incredibly dull and often frustrating listen. In between rendering the text with all the earnestness of a 1950s news report, few of the actors tackle their roles as though they’re characters, often treating each of their lines as though they’re unconnected to the others or else any emotional through line spread across an entire speech rarely differentiating changes in thought. A contemporary review argues that the prince “starts weakly, but gathers strength and authority. His sibiliants are aggressive, but his passions magnificent”, which, assuming that the writer’s referring to Patrick Wymark, the actor not his character, is amazingly sympathetic to a performance in which the advice to the players sounds like a training day in a call centre and whose death has all the tragedy of losing a remote control down the back of the sofa.
As I’ve said before, Hamlet or indeed any Shakespeare play isn’t simply a text to be read or more specifically in this case, read out loud. While I understand the need for clarity given one of these production’s primary utilities, that text can become lost in translation if there isn’t a real human emotion behind it, if as is so often the case here, there’s only the vaguest sense that these characters are related to one another or to create an atmosphere. There are individual shining moments, Ophelia’s madness, Claudius’s prayer, the Mousetrap, oddly, though it’s dented slightly by the inclusion of the dumb show which is read in via Shakespeare’s stage directions which only makes dramatic sense if you assume that its being described in the space while the actual mime is occurring. Whoever it is playing Gertrude is really quite good too, but handstung by director George Rylands lack of a particular vision for what the play’s supposed to be about. I simply can’t tell is Hamlet’s supposed to be mad or not.
All of which sounds wildly cruel and having listened to it yourself thanks to that Spotify player, might just consider that its just dated and that I’m simply criticising the mode of acting which was prevalent in that era. That might be true. I wasn’t much of a fan of Gielgud’s audio rendering of the same era. Or Paul Schofield’s which was published at roughly the same time. Both of them were great actors. Legends. Wymark too was a stalwart of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (which later became the RSC) so I'm willing to entertain that there's an expectation presentment mismatch. But I can only provide an opinion on what I've heard and what I've heard are performances in which the passions seem to be engaged in the wrong places and lacking in psychological complexity. It says much that when EMI re-released these Argos in the 80s, they swapped out this original production for the superior Jacobi Old Vic version (which is why it’s taken so long for me to alight here).
Nevertheless there’s a definite sense in being steeped in a kind of history listening to this recording. It is a rarity and having listened to say many of the other Marlowe Players productions (even if I’ve not enjoyed many of them) it’s good to tick it off that list. The provenance of the recording’s open to question. The album cover on the Spotify version is very home made, dated. The recording itself is directly from a vinyl copy; the clicks and drop outs are all there and the sound becomes distorted as it reaches the end of the each of the sides. There’s also a pretty big mistake. Part 4 is an exact copy of Part 3, which means its missing the fishmonger, the arrival of the players and the initial greeting with R&G. So, yes, this is a review of an incomplete recording. But given that this is the only recording available, it’d be wrong not to add it to this list. Some of these productions are a revelation. Some of them are a box ticking exercise. The joy is, I’m never always sure which it’s going to be.
You can make up your own mind. Here it is on Spotify:
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