It's been a major treat finally having the Arkangel Shakespeare available on Audible - almost as good as finally getting the Beatles on iTunes. This remarkable series of recordings includes every play Shakespeare wrote, in a full-court-press audio production with sound effects and an original score. The series is 10-15 years old at this point, but it holds up magnificently.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is not one of Shakespeare's best. My own private theory is that it was his first play, written before he even left Stratford. Most of the scenes involve only two people; the famous (or infamous) last scene leaves one character, Sylvia, mute for the last 10 minutes. The turning point of the play is completely unbelievable. The puns, some of them tedious to begin with, go on forever, and there's a surprising carelessness about place names. It's definitely prentice work.
On the other hand, the play has the servant Launce and his dog Crab. Launce is played here by the brilliant John Woodvine: if you're old enough, you may remember him as the evil uncle from the sprawling stage production of "Nicholas Nickleby." Launce is dumb as a post, but not so dumb that he can't see that his master, Proteus, is a scoundrel. Proteus is played by Michael Maloney (who did a brilliant turn as the Dauphin in Branagh's "Henry V"); he tries to betray the love interest of his best friend, Valentine, played by Damian Lewis (quite a change from his more recent incarnation on "Homeland"). In fact, one of the pleasures to be had from the series is recognizing the voices of actors who are better-known in other contexts.
The music for all of the Arkangel productions is composed by Dominique Le Gendre. The score sounds like the kind of jazzy, smoky music you'd hear in the background at a candlelit dinner. Usually it works, but the one criticism I have of the production is that his version of "Who is Sylvia?" misses the mark, with an overly complex melody that doesn't quite fit the pace of the lyrics. It's a rare misstep in the series.
If you're going for the Shakespeare highlights, you can give this one a pass. But if you're determined to do the whole canon, it's well worth your while: if nothing else, there's always Crab.
It's very exciting to see the Naxos Shakespeare recordings appearing on Audible in the new enhanced format. If you can manage the extra space they take up, small enough in the grand scheme of things, the improvement in sound quality is well worth it. The crispness of the music and voices, and the stereo effects, come through particularly well in this recording.
That said, this is a tough play. Portia is probably the most appealing character in the bunch, but even she has a dark side: she is, after all, the main engine of Shylock's downfall. Anthony Sher gives a somber and dignified performance as Shylock: not necessarily a man more sinned against than sinning, but a man plenty sinned against.
Shakespeare, here as always, remains an unblinking observer of all sides of the moral equation. The Christians spit on Shylock, call him dog, do their best to make his business fail -- one of the only businesses that, by law, he was allowed to engage in. (It's an intriguing biographical footnote that Shakespeare's own father was brought up at one point on charges of usury.)
Shylock is no passive victim: he fights back with the one tool left him, the commitment of Venice to the rule of law. On the other hand, the awful judgement meted out to him at the end of the trial scene -- an economic straitjacket and a forced conversion -- is allowed to stand: I've seen the play done where Shylock is played as a stereotypical Jewish villain who gets a well-earned comeuppance. The attempts of many recent productions to build sympathy for Shylock are supported but are not required by the text itself. However nuanced the production -- and this one is finely nuanced -- this ambiguity about its sympathies makes it a very hard play to digest.
In other words, thought-provoking, unsettling, and worth every minute.
Some "Hamlets" have more star power, but I've seldom listened to a "Hamlet" that pulled me into the story so effectively. This is partly due to the music. It's jazzy, it's urban, it's jumping with energy. The way rap rhythms are used for the play-within-a-play is brilliant.
The play has been carefully trimmed: some of the lines have been cut, but all the scenes are here, including (thankfully) Fortinbras and his four captains who bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage. Some of the cut lines involve mythological references; others involve objects that, in this world of flushing toilets, dinging elevators, and cocking pistols, would have seemed out of place. The important thing is that the cuts are "proportional," maintaining the overall structure and pace of the play rather than simply gouging out blocks of text.
At first the American accents didn't sound "right" doing Shakespeare -- I say that even though I'm an American myself -- but the energy of the performances got me over that hurdle in short order. (It's certainly preferable to someone trying to fake the accent!) The most jarring note in the production (for me) was the casting of women as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, the actresses carry the roles well, and this casting choice even lends a bit of an edge to some of the racy banter between Hamlet and his old classmates.
I really like this production. It's a full-on radio play with plenty of ambient sound effects; outstanding music; and a crackerjack ensemble cast. I hope Blackstone does more like it in the future.
I am the author of "Inner Fears", a thriller by MFKing. I am a social media manager for Jazz Social Media. Audio books are my main entertainment, and I think the best entertainment offered today.
I listen to this when I am going to sleep, or during naps. The rhythm and accent and reading is very soothing, like meditation.