27 Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet played by Kenneth Branagh.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Glyn Dearman.

When a radio production opens with the sound of Francisco pissing up a wall, giving his line “For this relief much thanks” a double meaning, you know you’re going to be listening to something rather special. A 1992 recording for Radio 3 by The Renaissance Theatre Company of a version of the 1988 staging, directed by Kenneth Branagh in conjunction with radio producer Glyn Dearman, this presents the full text and has one of the greatest casts I’ve seen outside of Branagh’s own film, including Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Judi Dench, Sophie Thompson, John Gieldgud, Michael Hordern, Michael Elphrick and one Emma Thompson.

Though this has similarities with that film, especially Branagh asking long term collaborator Patrick Doyle to offer some orchestration (though the music cues would not be carried over), Dr. Russell Jackson’s engagement as the text consultant and with some very cinematic audio design, this is by no means an audio animatic. With mostly a different cast and alternative thematic underpinnings, within moments it’s entirely possible to put the celluloid imagery to one side and simply allow this alternative version to wash over you or as happened in my case strike me in the guts. Audio productions rarely move me, yet by the end of these three and a half hours I was despondent, depressed and even teary. Job done, then, Mr Branagh.

Whereas in the film, Hamlet’s generally sane and regal and angry rather than even feigning madness, here we find a much more visceral presence apt to shift off into moments where he's entirely unhinged ("the conscience of the king" is a particular showcase). But there are moments of intimacy with the listener and in the booklet that accompanies the cassettes which includes interviews with all of the main players, Branagh says that he’s trying to create the impression of the prince thinking the set speeches. He achieves this by removing the background sound effects -- except during “To Be Or Not To Be…” in order to show that, as in the later film, he’s performing for Claudius and Polonius, secreted nearby.

Branagh takes the most relish and particular care during The Mousetrap. The extended text allows him to enunciate Hamlet’s disdain about how the visiting theatre company is being set aside in town in favour of the new fashion for child acting companies (a real issue in Shakespeare’s day). Michael Hordon’s Player King gives full richness to the text from Pyramous (bringing to mind his turns as Prospero). The whole duration of the dumb show is included with explanatory sound effects and audience reactions – though I wonder how clear this sequence would be with someone new to Hamlet. Either way this is one of the richest treatments of the players I've heard so far. Not least because ...

Emma Thompson is the Player Queen. In the booklet interview, she notes that usually the play within a play “is acted very hammily” which its inferred has the knock on effect of making it comical (perhaps to approach head-on boys playing girls as suggested by Shakepeare in the text), distracting us from what the scene is about. “Claudius" she says, "has to be touched and frightened by what he sees”. This is a rare occasion when the emotional truth of The Murder of Gonzago is fully explored and their arcane predicament almost becomes as compelling as the play outside the play, which means that the King's later confessional is all the more truthful.

This is a production replete with such excellent choices. Gieldgud’s Ghost, whose ancient voice suggests that he’s being broadcast live from purgatory, his disembodied monotone at odds with Branagh’s emotional reaction, Hamlet heard whimpering throughout. In the closet scenes, when Polonius cries out he actually sounds like Claudius making Hamlet’s mistake all the more plausible – usually we have to trust that the Prince just isn’t in his right mind which is why he’s stabbing someone who plainly doesn’t sounds like some old duffer. Doyle’s music plays at length between acts allowing the listener a moment to consider what they’ve just heard, the audio equivalent of the scene changes in the theatre.

The recording even makes its presence felt by appearing on four cassettes, eight sides, despite only being about half an hour longer than the ’77 Jacobi version. Listening to the two in quick succession as I did, its possible to hear the progression in technique, perhaps a small increase in psychological complexity, but now and then I did get a feeling of déjà vu as the Jacobi's influence asserted itself in a line reading (“The cup, the cup”) or playing of a scene (Laertes storming the castle, the rabble cascading through the speaks). But mostly this a chance to catch one of those watershed moments with three generations of Hamlet in one production this s a great theatrical event and a celebration of the play.

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