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Sunday, 13 August 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Hamlet (Credit: Big Finish) Written by William Shakespeare

Script Editor: Justin Richards

Directed by Scott Handcock

Cast: Alexander Vlahos (Hamlet), 
Miles Richardson (Claudius), Tracey Childs(Gertrude), 
Terry Molloy (Polonius), Daniel Brocklebank (Horatio), 
Deirdre Mullins (Ophelia), Samuel Barnett (Laertes), 
Jolyon Westhorpe (Rosencrantz), Geoffrey Breton (Guildenstern), Barnaby Edwards (The Ghost), 
Youssef Kerkour (Barnardo), Alex Jordan (Francisco), 
James Joyce (Marcellus)

Big Finish Productions - Released August 2017

“Not another one!” Recalling Brenda from Bristol’s much-quoted reaction to the announcement of the 2017 General Election I had a similar reaction to the prospect of yet another production of what is perhaps the most performed of all Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is probably the well-known and widely regarded as the one of the most outstanding works in the whole of English literature. However, much as I am a fan of Shakespeare and certainly feel that his tragedies leave the comedies in the shade by comparison, I’ve always favoured his history plays especially that one about the hunchback king who ended up buried in a Leicester car park, which tend play up the political drama with a strong emphasis on tragedy and a dose of black comedy thrown in for good measure.

Whilst not being my personal favourite Hamlet certainly owes a debt to the history plays with plenty of political goings on for those paying attention (provided you’re not watching one of the film versions which chose to cut out Shakespeare’s intended ending with the arrival of the Norwegian prince Fortinbras at the head of an invading army) even though it focuses mainly on the tragedy of its eponymous central character.

This audio production marks a first (but hopefully far from the last) venture into the works of Shakespeare from Big Finish who have built their reputation largely upon the production of brand new adventures featuring established characters. Recent years have seen them take a few tentative steps into adapting classic works which have included last year’s excellent dramatisation of Dracula and most recently a series of adaptations of the works of H.G. Wells. This production has emerged as the brainchild of producer Scott Handcock and lead actor Alexander Vlahos who have previously collaborated on five series of Big Finish’s first wholly original series The Confessions of Dorian Gray. At this stage I should confess that whilst I thought Vlahos gave an excellent performance throughout that series, I was rather disappointed at the decisions taken on how it was brought to what has been described as a definitive ending last year.  When I first heard that the pair’s next project would be to take on Hamlet I was rather sceptical. I am however delighted to say that my fears that Big Finish were over reaching themselves were unfounded and that this is an excellent production which makes a genuine virtue of the audio medium. Whilst Hamlet remains oft-performed with many stage and film versions available to peruse, a quick online search indicates that there are only a few radio productions in circulation, and only one which was recorded within the last decade.

With so many recent TV actors stage renditions of the prince of Denmark to be compared with including Tennant, Simm, Cumberbatch and the prospect of Hiddleston in the wings, Vlahos is an almost uniquely youthful Hamlet. He is genuinely believable as a distraught university student who has returned home to find his father dead, and both his mother and his expected inheritance suddenly in the control of his uncle. He has a lot of fun with the advantages of being on audio and not give a theatrical shouted performance such as playful delivery of lines such as “words, words, words” and a delicately whispered rendition of the most quoted speech in the whole of English literature from Act III. The dumb show performed by the players in the same act is cleverly adapted into narration of Shakespeare’s stage directions. It is left up to the listener to decide how much of Hamlet’s apparent decent from melancholia at the feeling that he has effectively lost both parents to the very edge of apparent madness is genuine and how much is an act to keep his uncle and step-father guessing.

Miles Richardson, perhaps best known to Big Finish listeners as the enigmatic Irving Braxiatel from their long running Gallifrey and Bernice Summerfield spin-off series, gives excellent support as Claudius, the king who appears to be trying to act in his nephew’s best interest whilst hiding the secret that he has murdered his way to power. One wonders if Shakespeare missed a trick by not making Claudius more central to the action as he certainly shares common features with other anti-heroes including the aforementioned hunchback and the eponymous lead character of the Scottish play. If viewed from Claudius’ perspective the play has the feeling of being a pre-cursor to House of Cards, in which case Richardson is absolutely perfect to play the king with an uncertain grip on power and it was no surprise to learn that he was Handcock and Vlahos’s first choice for the role.

There are only two women in the cast but both give great performances. Tracey Childs is a harsher Gertrude than some previous portrayals. However, she does not seem too overtly under the spell of her new husband which lends the character a little more believability. Deirdre Mullins also gives a very believable performance as Ophelia who is perhaps the most tragic character of the whole play as she gets caught up in the games between Hamlet and his uncle and manipulated by her own father Polonius (an excellent performance from Big Finish stalwart Terry Molloy).

Of the remaining cast, honourable mentions should also go to the always excellent Samuel Barnett (of whom more soon in the upcoming Cicero series as well as BBC America’s Dirk Gently),Barnaby Edwards as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, Daniel Brocklebank as Horatio and James Joyce in various ensemble roles including, if my ears were not mistaken, Fortinbras in the play's concluding scene.

It would be remiss to conclude without acknowledging the excellent atmosphere created by Neil Gardner’s sound design and the music of James Dunlop, whose previous work was a major contribution to the success of The Confessions of Dorian Gray.

One minor quibble, and this is based on a lack of knowledge of different versions of the text which exist, is the choice to pronounce the word “murder” as “murther”. Whilst I assume this must derive from an earlier version of the text than I’m familiar with which it would surely have made more sense for a production aiming to appeal to audiences who won’t be familiar with the play to use a pronunciation which would have made more sense to the modern ear. Script editor Justin Richards is however to be commended for having kept cuts to the text to a minimum and allowing this release to run for a full three hours. However, the line “remember me” appeared to be missing from the ghost’s departure in Act I which would have gone unnoticed had Hamlet not then quoted it a few lines later. Perhaps this was an edit which was overlooked. Overall these did not affect this reviewer’s overall enjoyment of this excellent production.

This reviewer’s appetite has now been well and truly whetted for more of the Bard’s works to find their way into Big Finish’s studios. Already a production of King Lear starring David Warner is on the way later this year and hopefully there will be more to follow in the near future.

Whilst it may not be this reviewer’s personal favourite, this production certainly goes someway to exploring the indefinable quality of what makes Hamlet such a special play to experience in performance but when asked to set down what that quality is one can only conclude by giving Hamlet himself the last words:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 

Hamlet is available now from Big Finish and on general release from September 30th 2017