A new Bard CD leads Richard Edmonds to reflect on how he and other actors find inspiration from those who bring the Swan of Avon's words to life.
A few years ago, we looked to both Argo and Caedmon to provide recordings of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. These vinyl discs were exceptional providing benchmark recordings featuring some of the best actors around at the time.
In those days you would have probably found John Gielgud as Hamlet, Laurence Olivier as Othello with Maggie Smith as his Desdemona or perhaps Paul Scofield as Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale”.
As young actors we learned from these greats how to end a line or inflect upwards or downwards to give substance to a particular phrase.
We learned how to point words, how to control our breathing and, most importantly, how to slow down so that you appeared to be talking to the person in Row B.
“It’s about intimacy dear, not taking the roof off,” Dame Sybil Thorndike said to me at the end of a very taxing (and very lonely) drama examination at LAMDA, where I had over-acted Rumour’s speech from Henry the Fourth Part 2, and drew a critical rebuke. But Dame Sybil was a kind woman and I passed.
Argo and Caedmon are, I believe, no more and so it is wonderful to my mind to have seasoned, handpicked voices evoking the magic of the Swan of Avon so well on this much welcome anthology.
Judi Dench has always been able to give an emotional charge to Shakespeare that is hauntingly beautiful.
When she moves gently through Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment”....) she evokes that intimate part of the human spirit which lies along the troubled borderline of calm reasoning.
“Love is not love which alteration finds and moves with the remover to remove”, she says, before giving us the incomparable: “Love’s not time’s fool...” at which point you may well take a moment to ponder on the hard knocks life has doled out to you, to me, to us all.
And when this woman who is now a national treasure, reads Titania’s “forgeries of jealousy” speech from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, you realise how briiliantly accomplished she is.
Dame Judi said: “I was always passionate about Shakespeare, more than any other author. This disc has been for me a wonderful opportunity to work with my brother Jeffery on some of the loveliest things Shakespeare wrote.”
Jeffery Dench, who shares his sister’s enthusiasm, and gives a perfectly-tuned reading of “To Be Or Not To Be “, (apparently a favourite track with the buying public) alongside a perfectly articulated interpretation of “ The Seven Ages of Man” that can be profitably compared to Max Adrian’s poignant reading of the speech many years ago at the RSC, told me Judi was his “best critic”.
“We made the recordings over several months according to availability, in a lovely studio in the Barbican” (Jeffery told me) “I can honestly say it was a delight to join up with each other over a table and microphone where we could give each other notes at the end of a take, and where hearing Judi read the sonnets was a special delight.
“When we’d done most of the chosen pieces, it was decided we needed some comedy. I had played the Old Shepherd in a production of The Winter’s Tale at the RSC, so I could repeat my performance. But who would play the Young Shepherd?
“Then I thought of trying my grandson Oliver who was studying for his Drama A-levels. His first reading was magic and we went straight into the recording studio.”
Fast forward to Item 10 on the disc and you can a good measure of Oliver Dench’s capacities with his delicately androgynous take on Ariel, Prospero’s attendant sprite from The Tempest.
This beautifully evocative interpretation, which he makes his own, seems to find Ariel hanging amongst the stars, and from the opening lines: “Full fathom five thy father lies”, to the closing of this elegant sequence the younger Dench nails it, leaving you wishing he were bringing his talents to a stage production of the play.