36 Zach Appelman

Hamlet played by Zach Appelman.
Directed by Robert Richmond.

The Shakespeare Folger Library, in conjunction with Simon & Schuster have begun a new series of full text audio recordings of the plays based on their own texts and inevitably, probably, Hamlet is amongst the first off the battlements.  The packaging is pretty basic, a cardboard box with the cds in a similarly cardboard inlay with the cast and credits printed on the first of the three cds, which was difficult to refer to when I wanted to confirm that once of the voices I could hear was John "Q" De Lancie.  It wasn't but I didn't find that out until I had to swap discs.

All of the discs explain this was recorded at Omega Studios and Audio School in Rockville, Maryland.  The cast is from the States who keep their accents, which might seem like a redundant statement, but I have heard similarly US produced versions in which the cast effect "British" accents.  Sometimes, tonally, it is confusing.  The smallish cast often doubles up and I'm sure I heard the same actor playing different characters in the same scene, especially the battlements.  Many audio productions can offer a range of regional accents to provide an extra clarity this does not.

As expected, due to its educational purposes, this is a pretty neutral rendering, director Robert Richmond realising that the target audience of teachers and students do not really wanting to deal with an eclectic interpretation of the text.  The audio design and music are basic, with simple suggestive stop effects and, I think I heard, two different synthesised musical jingles depending on whether the text is shifting between scenes or acts.  The intent is presumably for the listener to read along with a text, probably Folger's own.

The neutrality extends to the performances which dedicate themselves for the most part to textual clarity.  At times the irony of the text is ignored (Horatio admitting to Hamlet he's seen his father's spirit), at others its somewhat pantomimed (Gertrude's course correction on the identities of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).  But it's difficult to fault this kind of production when you're aware of the intent, that the creative decisions have led to a purposeful blandness that can only really be apparent to someone who's seen/heard this many productions (albeit not recently...).

Polonius is largely played as though he drifted in from one of the comedies, probably Much Ado, notably when Ophelia's describing her strange visit from Hamlet to him, her father very pleased that he's taking an interest.  As sometimes happens, the Ophelia actress, in this case Emily Trask, really comes into her own during the descent into madness.  She also poignantly plays Gravedigger II later, which if this was on stage would provide the spooky image of Ophelia posthumously digging her own grave.  Ian Merrill Peakes's Claudius sounds disconcertingly like Jacobi.

In about ten days, Zach Appelman begins a two month run as Hamlet in Hartford.  His prince is not especially mad.  It's more that we hear the more adolescent, uncertain man in the private moments, but play-acts a kind of aristocracy in public.  As the production winds onward, particularly through the closet scene, the latter becomes his default as he gains a clearer direction of purpose.  His breathing, which earlier is raspy, the words difficult to say, reduces, increasing the coherence of what he's communicating. But like the rest of the production he's never, ever difficult to understand right up to and including his final words.

Folger Shakespeare Library presents Hamlet By William Shakespeare is out now on cd. Review copy supplied.

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