‘Hamlet – Big Finish Classics’ reviewed

­­❉ Big Finish’s first Shakespeare adaptation is a  full-cast audio production of Shakespeare’s most famous play.

Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet stands out as the play that is so melancholic the clown dies before the story begins. Unlike King Lear in which the fool acts as a psychopomp guiding the title character through the underworld of his insanity, in Hamlet, Yorick is a momento mori, a passive and morbid reminder of mortality and of Hamlet’s own lost innocence. This pretty much sums up the play and offers an explanation of why it is so celebrated. Through Hamlet, Shakespeare not only turned the conventions of his specialised own art form inside-out, he also provided a vessel for countless generations to pour their own anxieties and preoccupations into. So Hamlet has become something of an academic playground with performances inviting analysis using critical theories ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis to postmodern structuralism, and this is due entirely to the richness of the source text.

Ironically, given the malleability of the text, adapting the play can be tricky. There is something almost too rich about Hamlet; there are almost too many options for riffing on the narrative, setting and subtexts. Done right, the play soars and has the potential to explore the modern world, but the thing that makes the play great, can also be the thing that makes it dated and leaden. Recent adaptations (and by recent I mean everything from Olivier’s 1948 expressionistic, noir version onwards) have mostly attempted to push the play to serve particular agendas. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation, for example, reframes the story as a screen version of a Tolstoy novel, with the USP of being the film that present the most complete version of the text, whilst Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film transforms the play into a modern surveillance thriller, a genre also tapped into by the David Tennant RSC version.

Given the popularity of the play, it is an obvious first choice for Big Finish, but because the play is so pervasive in the cultural psyche it is impossible to listen to this without comparing it with other productions, not least (for obvious reasons) David Tennant’s performance in 2008. This production is a conservative one. The soundscape is gothic and traditionally medieval, the performances are down-the-line. This is to be expected of an audio adaptation with fewer opportunities than stage or film to be inventive with the period or narrative.

For fans of the play this may make this version superfluous, but for those approaching the play, or even Shakespeare, for the first time, this is probably pitched exactly right. For a company that specialises in sound, the atmosphere and feeling of aural depth is undeniably strong and gives the play an immersive feel, but at times I felt that this was taken a little too far.

With simpler stories (such as the Doctor Who plays) this atmosphere is essential as it provides an essential framework for the outlandish and pulpy dialogue, but here where the script is everything, the soundscape risks swamping, and distracting from, the text. The main issue I had with the adaptation is with the incidental music which managed, at times, to both divert attention from the soliloquies, but also felt inappropriately thin.

This is a minor quibble, however. I find it difficult to criticise any adaptation of Shakespeare, not least one by a company that offers a platform to get the play to a younger audience. What excites me about this series, and may cause my to buy more, is the idea of more plays being produced. The next is King Lear, but I’m more interested to hear what Big Finish do with the lesser-known plays. Given the expertise at Big Finish for creating intricately rich, interwoven series, I’m fascinated to hear (should they get that far) how they approach the cycles of history plays.

I suspect I’m not the target audience for Big Finish’s Hamlet, but as someone who has been mildly obsessed with proselytising the plays to those for whom Shakespeare was broken by enforced study, I applaud this attempt to make it available to a wider and younger audience.

­­❉ ‘Hamlet’ was released in August 2017. It will be exclusively available to purchase from the BF website until September 30 2017, and on general sale after this date. 

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