If you’re someone for whom Shakespeare was a school chore that hasn’t carried into your adult life, then you won’t realise just how much of Game of Thrones derives from the Elizabethan playwright’s work. Or how much of Steven Moffat’s heroes’ “glibness” descends from the eponymous Danish prince’s feigning at madness. If you don’t know Hamlet in particular, then you perhaps won’t realise just how oft-quoted it is – “To be or not to be” is the Beethoven’s fifth of literature – or how much of it has seeped into the English language. This is, without question, the most influential and well-regarded stage play ever written.
So if you’re kicking off a series of Shakespeare plays at Big Finish, where better to start than the best?
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s (surprisingly secular) meditation on death. And as with all the best meditations on death, it’s also a riot of back-stabbing and bed-hopping, one of the great, inevitable bloodbaths of English literature. Precious few of its characters make it to the end of the play still breathing, but the genius is in the journey.
In brief, the narrative concerns the young prince’s intended revenge over his step-father’s fratricide, but to talk about plot is to do it a disservice. This is about how an act of greed collides with a cowardly choice to undo a monarchy, and how every action creates consequences that have the power to unseat kings. The unravelling begins in earnest in Act Four and escalates through Act Five, but the first half is just as scintillating.
To do Hamlet on audio was Alexander Vlahos’ idea, and it’s inspired. There is very little lost and an awful lot gained in taking away the proscenium arch (or film camera) and making of Shakespeare’s dialogue and characterisation something much more intimate. Rather than playing to an auditorium, now those spine-chilling soliloquies are delivered right into the listeners’ ears, and but for a hint of self-consciousness on the occasional most famous examples, it’s an approach that pays off splendidly. Vlahos himself begins the play just a touch too hysterical, but soon settles into a performance that – while perhaps reminiscent of David Tennant’s interpretation in a not unwelcome way – brings some slightly archaic dialogue into vivid life. The rest of the cast mostly matches him beat for beat, animating a much-studied work such that it breathes with vitality. The musical and technical choices are all pitched to perfection.
If you haven’t done Shakespeare, it’s time to get over your preconceptions and discover its true value. And if you do love Shakespeare, then all you need to know is that Big Finish have given their own rendition of his very best and it doesn’t disappoint. Magnificent.
HAMLET / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / DIRECTOR: SCOTT HANDCOCK / WRITTEN BY: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE / STARRING: ALEXANDER VLAHOS, MILES RICHARDSON, TRACEY CHILDS, TERRY MOLLOY, DANIEL BROCKLEBANK, DEIRDRE MULLINS, SAMUEL BARNETT / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW FROM BIG FINISH, ON GENERAL SALE FROM OCTOBER 1ST