Reviewed: Big Finish’s Hamlet

The problem with reviews of productions of classic plays is that so many reviewers are determined to show how brilliant they are: far more brilliant than the plebs in the audience, far more talented than the director, and far more qualified to mount a better production of the piece than the one they’re actually reviewing. They’re the sort of people who bellow loudly with laughter at horribly dated and now horribly unfunny jokes when they’re watching Shakespearean comedies, not actually because they find them funny but because they want to show how clever they at understanding witticisms about bear-baiting or badgers.

It now falls to me to review Big Finish’s Hamlet without being a git. This is not easy.

I’m aware, too, that lots of readers of DWC won’t know the play. Nothing wrong with that. I also know that lots of people find Shakespeare daunting and won’t give this release a try.

But please do, because it’s very, very good.

If I can bring in some personal stuff without descending into gittishness: in the distant past, I used to be a teacher. From time to time, I’d block book thirty or so tickets for a show, stick a notice up for colleagues and students to sign up for, hire a coach, and take parties along to see something that looked good. If we were off to see something by Shakespeare, I generally used to tell people: a) don’t worry if you don’t understand every single nuance because nobody does; b) just sit back and enjoy it. I also used to hand out summaries of the plot. Some of the story twists are contained in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lines, so it can be confusing if you don’t know the story before you start.

So, if you’re not familiar with the play, it’s well worth reading a plot summary before you listen.

Hamlet’s the first of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. (The others are generally counted as Othello, King Lear – soon to be released by Big Finish – and Macbeth. This is using a popular reckoning; I’m not a scholar, and I bow to any scholarly correction here.) It’s the first, then, and it’s also much less of a broken glass sandwich than the other three. Macbeth is very, very nasty and King Lear and Othello are almost unremittingly harrowing – brilliant, but not a bundle of laughs. Hamlet was written after Shakespeare had written a lot of funny stuff and parts of it are still very, very funny. A lot of jokes date very quickly: Harry Enfield’s early stuff, written at the time of rampant Thatcherism, is probably mystifying to people who weren’t around then and who don’t see why shell suited Scousers had people in hysterics. Similarly, it’d be pretty extraordinary if we still got jokes that were written more than four hundred years ago.

But – and this may surprise – Hamlet is still very funny. Some of the gags no longer appeal (and they’re usually cut, thank goodness) but comedy of character endures for much longer: silly people don’t date, and they still make you laugh. Pompous, long winded, self-important bores were around in Shakespeare’s time and they still are. There’s one in Hamlet and in this production he’s played by Terry Molloy. Polonius is one of the play’s highlights. He’s also self-satisfied, convinced of his own brilliance, and he has the sensitivity of a brick. You can meet people like him in any office. We elect lots of them to parliament.

If I were pressed, I’d probably say Hamlet is my favourite of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It really is as good as the hype says it is. There’s a lot of very funny comedy, plus horror, a dead man who won’t stay dead, sex, moral agonising, murder, more sex, cruelty (lots of that), blazing rows between Hamlet and his girlfriend, violence, hatred, mental illness, and sex (did I mention that?).

Hamlet is the part every actor wants to play. Notable interpretations have been provided by Olivier, Gielgud, Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Lindsay, Anton Lesser, Mark Rylance, Samuel West, Alex Jennings and (most notably) Matthew Waterhouse.

Big Finish wisely goes for a straight interpretation of the play. There are no gimmicks or off the wall characterisations. It’s said that the best advice when you mount any drama is pretty basic: just tell the story. If you do that, everything else will fall into place.

The play’s heavily cut; about a quarter of the text has gone. Hamlet’s the longest of Shakespeare’s tragedies (and I think the longest of his plays, too); once you’ve edited together the material from the early printed versions, it runs for well over four hours. So long, in fact, that uncut versions are rare and are only ever done as a curiosity. (The Branagh film, which featured Derek Jacobi as Claudius, used the full text and so had to have an intermission to allow for a wee break. Even that film was later released edited; the full version’s quite hard to find now.) Cutting always means that some of the good bits have to go, but it’s necessary: it sprawls a bit if you go for the whole thing, and cutting also tightens things up.

Judiciously edited, then. BF’s expertise in producing audio drama is evident in this production: the music’s good and the effects are used sparingly to enhance the storytelling. Neither is intrusive. The Ghost’s dialogue is treated but this, too, is well done.

Most of the cast are drawn from Big Finish’s rep company but (and this is important) they’re cast not because they’ve got Doctor Who credits, but because you’d cast them in that part anyway. Alexander Vlahos is great. Terry Molloy is a very talented and versatile actor and he’s marvellous as Polonius. Barnaby Edwards is suitably chilling as the Ghost. (And I have no doubt Louise Jameson and Lisa Bowerman will both be superb as Goneril and Regan in King Lear.) In fact, it would be very bland to go through the whole cast and say X played Y and he / she was (insert appropriate superlative). It’s an ensemble, company piece. It’s very well done. It’s unpretentious.

It is, in sum, very, very good.

I’m hugely looking forward to King Lear. And if they can persuade Tom Baker to play Falstaff…

Big Finish Classics is a welcome new venture. This is an excellent first release and a very, very fine production of Hamlet.

Bravo.

Big Finish Classics Hamlet is available to buy now on CD or Download for £16.99 and £14.99 respectively.