Kenneth Cranham does a remarkable job conveying the complex, brilliant, and sometimes tortured personality of Samuel Johnson. Johnson could appear bizarre to people who met him for the first time: he had facial scars and tics and jerky movements, and he rolled around in his chair, unable to sit still; and he had many verbal tics as well, clicking with his tongue, murmuring to himself, blowing out his breath like a great whale. (Some people at first thought he was mentally deficient - until he opened his mouth and started talking.) Cranham captures this semi-Tourettes aspect of Johnson with sound alone, without the benefit of his own (somewhat Johnsonian) body.
The production bills itself as an adaptation of Boswell's Life of Johnson. But it includes other material as well, some of it from Boswell's journals, some of it from accounts of Johnson by his friend Hester Thrale. Inevitably, in such a short production, a lot is missing; but Robin Brroks, who wrote the script, made an intelligent and coherent selection of events. Oliver Goldsmith is here, as are John Wilkes and Hester Thrale, and of course Boswell himself, a self-absorbed rake who initiates his friendship with Johnson with one eye on his own future publishing royalties.
There are a number of dramatic episodes in this quiet scholar's life, most tragically his break with the widowed Mrs Thrale after she decided to marry an Italian dancing master. The audio production ably shows the pain of this sadly self-inflicted breach, leaving Johnson almost alone in London when he felt himself nearing death and terrified of eternal damnation. Cranham's voice during some of these later scenes evokes a horror that gave me chills.
What you won't get from this audiobook - and don't really get a strong sense of from Boswell's own biography - is a clear understanding of why anyone should care about the life of Johnson. He was a great talker, one if the greatest: but more to the point, he was a brilliant writer, one of the best writers of discursive prose the English language has ever had.
But omissions aside, this is a good place to begin.
This is a mysterious and haunting audio version. It's basically the soundtrack of a stage production that was done in a highly stylized form some 50 years ago: the actors wore masks and spoke in an "elevated" way, sometimes emphasizing the verse (I believe the translation is by W.B. Yeats), sometimes trailing off into a wail of pain. You can almost imagine you're sitting in one of the great stone amphitheaters of ancient Greece. The tone of it takes some getting used to, but if you let it take hold of you, it's compelling and moving. The closing music, for me, sums up the somber, exalted mood of Greek tragedy better than anything else I've heard.
Wonderful idea to give listeners the ability to choose between versions with or without commentaries.
When I started listening to the version with commentaries, I was concerned that the commentaries might over explain the scenes and prevent me from appreciating the play from my own perspective. However, I listened on and was delighted to find that my worries were unfounded. The commentaries were copious and insightful enough to ensure effortless understanding of the context and language of the dialogue, but they did not preempt independent appreciation of the play overall.
In sum, I enjoyed this audiobook and gladly recommend it.