Hamlet played by John Duttine.
Directed by Gordon House.
The BBC’s Research and Development group has built a prototype which puts the BBC World Service on the web, making over seventy thousand programmes from the past sixty years available to listen to here. Still in closed testing, I’ve been lucky enough to have been given access (which might be able to ask for too via the details on their blog) and have spent the past few weeks in an agog state, boggling at the mass of programming at my finger tips on hundreds of topics across dozens of genres.
Of course my first search was the Hamlet, of course it was, and apart from documentaries, magazine shows and reviews, sure enough there is at least one production, this production. Originally broadcast in two hour long episodes on Sunday 4th and Tuesday 6th September 1983, adapted for radio by Colin Davis, directed by Gordon House, as you can see starred raffish John Duttine in the title role (his appearance in Day of the Triffids is pictured) and what a privilege to have been given the opportunity to listen.
At first, as audio Hamlets go, it seems superficially orthodox. The sound design is basic and period, with echoes for the interior of the castle, harsh winds for the exterior, scene changes are punctuated by some jingly atonal tubular bells and noodling on a pipe organ, Cyril Shaps’s Polonius is a typically bumbling old buffer with little room for a military mind (no Reynoldo scene) with Hamlet Snr played by famous voiceover artist John Westbook to give the character some spooky gravitas.
Except all the while us listeners, if we’re familiar with the play, notice that Davis in his adaptation experimenting somewhat with the structure of the text and in reducing it to fit the timeslot is making some interesting character-based decision, especially in relation to Hamlet. There’s nothing online at all that I can see about the production, which is a shame because I’d love to know the extent to which the adaptation was done in collaboration with the director and actors or if these are Davis’s alone.
After the Ghost, Davis cuts the swearing scene (“Sweeearrr…”) so to add some time for Hamlet to be off stage (off mic) transposes the introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (in what amounts to their longest scene) with Ophelia’s description to her father of Hamlet’s visit which then leads almost directly into Polonius explaining to the King and Queen that their son is mad and the plan that become the nunnery scene later.
Except, and this is where is becomes really interesting, Davis also cuts the Fishmonger which offers a clue as to how he, the director and Duttine view their Hamlet. In losing Fishmonger, we lose the wilder metaphoric excesses of the characters’ “mania” or “faux-mania” and this is repeated when Claudius asks the prince where he’s placed Polonius’s body and he tells him directly, no convocation of politic worms are e'en at him.
This is one of those sane Hamlets you hear about and rarely played. Or rather this is a Hamlet who seems entirely in control of his faculties and whose madness isn’t a mental illness, but anger. He’s an even more sinister and cruel in places than Peter Vaughn’s Claudius, a figure much more representative of the blandness of evil, only really showing emotion and inconstancy during the prayer scene. When Hamlet’s confronting his mother in the closet, we’re not sure if he won’t do her in as well.
Yet there’s still a constant element of doubt as to whether he’s faking these mood swings too, it’s not just controlled anger. Duttine's is a very public “To Be…”, watched by Polonius and Claudius with Ophelia evidently in proximity but when he spies her, his “Soft you now! The fair Ophelia!” so often played as a way of attracting her attention is internalised, as though he’s realised what he’s about to do, what he must do because he’s being watched, and doesn’t like it. Which suggests these choices have to have been collaborative to some extent.
All of which said, presumably dependent on the timeslot and utility, this is still a Hamlet which includes the greatest hits, from Polonius’s advice through to all of Hamlet’s speeches with the exception of “to the manner born” even to the point of including Fortinbras and his Captain, textually missing in action up until that point, so that “How all occasions do inform against me” can be included with some logic (even if the warring army arguably appears from nowhere in much the same way Laertes does at the end of the Welles adaptation).
The break in story occurs just before an all male Mousetrap, as Polonius agrees that Hamlet should be sent to England and Claudius says “It shall be so. / Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.” It’s an unusual point, especially given the day between the broadcast of the episodes, but it does mean that episode two begins with the ear catching spectacle of the play, which while rushed through, also underscores the aspect of theatricality and “play” inherent in the story.
The climax is pretty traditional, even if the sword fight is pretty swift and Osric is retained, though Fortinbras’s reappearance at the close jars with the perfectly tender way in which David Horovitch’s stalwart Horatio says, “Good night, sweet prince” which feels like the emotional conclusion of this production, though the mood is retained somewhat by the suitably processional music composed by Bernard Shaw (not George).
There's plenty more Shakespeare in the World Service prototype, along with rare productions of Early Modern Drama, though it's worth noting that it's still relatively populist in its choices, there's no Arden of Faversham or anything by Philip Massinger. But plenty of Marlowe. Not that I've the time to listen to any of it. But at least I found the Hamlet. At least I did that.