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.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Blackstone Audio have joined forces to give us another rousing production of Shakespeare. (Their earlier production, of "Hamlet," is one of the more compelling productions of that play available on Audible.) The audio production is based on an OSF stage production from 2011.
Some will object to the updating. This production has a strong Latino flavor, with mariachi music and bits and pieces of Spanish dialogue scattered throughout the play. There are electric buzzers, intercoms, sliding gates, and car horns. That kind of thing has never bothered me as long as the production remains true to the basic issues in the play and the truth of the characters; and that's certainly the case here. (If the BBC can set their audio production of "Julius Caesar" in Mussolini's Italy, why not this?) The sound engineers have created a completely convincing, lived-in world.
The production is helped by strong performances from Anthony Heald as the Duke and Stephanie Beatriz as Isabella. The Duke is often portrayed as a kind of brooding, mysterious presence, but Heald plays him as slightly vulnerable and often uncertain, even frantic, about what needs to happen next. Nothing quite makes up for the cruel trick he plays on Isabella - letting her believe her brother has been executed, when he hasn't been, in order to test her mettle - but that's the way Shakespeare wrote it.
The main disappointment, for me, was in the "comic relief." Lucio and his cronies come off a bit flat against the lively background. A minor flaw in an otherwise excellent piece of work. Looking forward to more OSF productions on audio!
Let's admit it, Shakespeare is daunting! I have a goal to read all of the plays, and then perhaps the sonnets, etc., but sometimes I don't know where to start. When I found this audio book that includes a commentary, I snapped it up. I could listen to and enjoy the fabulous play, but when I got lost or just didn't understand something, the commentator was there to help. She helped me understand word usage of the time, symbolism, and other useful things that are jam-packed in this play and make it the classic that it is. For me it was perfect. You can listen without the commentary as well, for people who would rather not have those comments going on but want to hear some great readers performing this play. I will definitely pick up other titles in this series.