The Merchant of Venice has long been a play whose themes have sparked controversy. Once this is put to one side a new, specifically audio performance issue, arises. The drama of this play is centred about the "courtroom" scene where the Merchant seeks justice over mercy. For this scene to work well the logic of the journey must be presented as reasonable and Shylock's intransigence needs to be credible. The greatest performance of this play and one that is clearly at the top of our list is that performed by Hugh Griffith, Dorothy Tutin and a great cast including Jeremy Brett. From beginning to end this play builds to it's apogee with beautiful pace and is held together by Hugh Griffith's sublime performance. Dorothy Tutin IS Portia and has set the bar extremely high in this great role. The courtroom scene is extraordinary and holds the listener at every stage. This is THE performance for those looking for the very best production.
When considering other performances we have been challenged, by 2 separate productions, into creating a new classification of Muse of Fire - Great Work. Anthony Sher's performance of Shylock, in the Naxos recording is nothing short of sublime. He displays all the humanity and believability in order to make this character so much more than just a stereotype. Unfortunately the supporting cast are not quite up to his mark which has caused us to downgrade this overall performance. This is one for the true aficionado looking to explore the possibilities of Shylock's character. In addition we have an exceptional performance by Warren Mitchell as Shylock and another excellent Shakespeare role played by Samuel West - another favourite of ours but mainly in his unquestionably brilliant performances of 1984 and Brighton Rock. His Bassiano is excellent. Together with Juliet Aubery's Portia, truly harking back to the genius of Dorothy Tutin. A very good production indeed.
As You Like It is a play that blends in with many of the other mistaken identity plays. One of it's distinguishing features is the seven ages of man speech in Act 2 scene 7. We have chosen the Vanessa Redgrave / Keith Michell production mainly for it's beautiful pacing and Stanley Holloway's performance as Touchstone is probably his greatest Shakespearean work. Max Adrian delivers the Seven Ages speech beautifully and, as a whole, rounds off the production as the one to beat. Not the greatest of the plays but definitely touched by the Muse of Fire.
Much Ado About Nothing is the first comedy we have looked at and these performances are definitely the best we have to offer. In the first, Rex Harrision plays Benedick with a pace and lightness of touch that may well surprise you, it did us, and Rachel Roberts performance of Beatrice shines like none other we have heard. Robert Stephens, for whom we have a consciously substantial soft-spot after his performance in Richard III, plays an excellent Claudio.
In the second production, the Marlowe Dramatic Society performance, we have an extra-ordinary collection of talent that shines as strong in quality as does the previous work if slightly less coherently. With John Gielgud as Benedick, Michael Hordern as Leonarto, Peggy Ashcroft as Beatrice and Ian Holm as Verges this production possesses more acting talent than any other but somehow fails to entertain to quite the same level.
In conclusion - Am I splitting hairs? Yes.
It would clearly be better if some of our brilliant Customers would comment.
Just a note to mention that, there are several more modern productions of this play available but none seem to match these classic performances for their humour and wit.
UPDATE - Late September 2017
We have continued to try to assess the worth of another set of performances. Some of our opinions may surprise you but hopefully they will encourage you to take the plunge and take the opportunity to listen to this great works performed by some of the greatest of acting talent.
Let's be clear, all of the performances you will find for sale on Brainfood Audiobooks will be competent. We have to say we have, over the years, consigned to the Charity Shop box all of the performances that appear to have been made with little passion to recommend them. What we have left is the greatest performances that have ever been made, and recorded/sold, of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare.
The muse of fire lives in these works and has inspired some of the greatest thespians ever to have walked the stage to perhaps their greatest heights.
In this, the final part of the second instalment of this series, we will continue to look at a number of plays that are more marginal in their position in the audiobook canon. This does not mean that they are any less passionately performed nor are they any less worthy of consideration. All of these performances must be considered essential to anyone who loves Shakespeare and enjoys performances in their audio format. The key element we will continue to consider is the passionate beauty of the performances.
A Midsummer Night's Dream requires a real elegance to pull it off. When we are dealing with high fantasy such as this it is crucial that the cast, and more specifically lead players, have perfect strength and authority. This helps bring the text down to earth, and to relevance with the audience, not with a bump, but with appropriate grace. Paul Scofield has very safe hands in this, and many other respects. This is the version to go for if you are looking to the very best performance. Warren Mitchell does a brilliant job injecting his special comic air into proceedings and, though ably supported in the second option, he does make this performance his own. Still, a great foil for the more classical, and we would consider better, performance.
Hands up! The Taming of the Shrew is one of our favorite comedies. The fire in this play lies almost entirely between Petruchio and Katherina. There are many versions of this play, some go for the comedic line almost exclusively but this version plays all parts evenly. Both Derek Godfrey's Petruchio and Peggy Ashcroft's Katherina play with such a lightness of touch that the dialogue sometimes has the appearance of music. This is the only version of this play that we listen to regularly and, though there are other versions notably Frances Barber and Roger Allam's production, they never quite generate the pure unadulterated fun of this production.
All's Well That Ends Well is not an easily classified play. The traditional Comedy/Tragedy dichotomy does not apply in this case. So the question of passion-in-performance becomes much more difficult to establish. Readers of our previous Muse of Fire reviews will know that we have a weakness for the work of Robert Stephens. In this play Mr Stephens plays the bombastic bragard Paroles with great skill and deftly avoids falling into farce. An excellent performance is also given by another one of our favourites - Claire Bloom. Her performance as Helena, the single key character of the play, dances between the comedic and tragic elements to bind the production beautifully. This, now sadly very rare, production of this play establishes a level that we have never heard surpassed. A must for all Shakespeare fans!
All Shakespeare Performances We Have to Offer
Shakespeare Poetry and Plays
The same can not be said of the poetry and plays. Many of these recordings are over 50 years old and are found mainly on Cassette. So the first major decision required when looking at the works of the Bard is -
Is it worth digging out the cassette player?
The answer is an undoubted YES!
One of our core principles is to offer an opportunity to find old recordings of works, which in many cases never made it to CD. So the next question is -
Are the recordings of some of the best Actors and Actresses of the 50's, 60's and 70's still worth listening to?
If you haven't heard these recordings then you haven't heard the recordings that inspired the current crop of actors who perform these works.If you haven't heard these recordings then the beautiful tones and wonderful audio flexibility developed by these actors over many years of work in Rep, something that has all but died out in the last 20 years, still awaits you.
So, with your CD or cassette player at hand, it is time to choose from the marvelous selection we have to offer.
Wherever you look, you have a treat in store!