Put aside all thought of stuffy classics. Think well-spun tale, full of twists and turns, subterfuges and bloody tyranny. Bear in mind that the BBC at the peak of its tour de force of TV drama production in the '70s and '80s made these two books into a masterpiece surpassed only (perhaps) by Brideshead Revisited. You can't do that with dull material.
As the title siggests, the books are written in the first person, as the autobiography of the partly disabled, sickly survivor of the Claudian wing of the Roman aristocracy who became emperor by flying below the radar and outliving all the other candidates. The choice of reader is critical, as we are listening to an elderly man tell his long and convoluted life story. Nelson Runger's voice rumbles along with just the right timbre and clarity for the character of the wily and learned Claudius. More importantly he has such a fine actor's grasp of text and meaning that we never, for one moment, feel that we are being read to. We are simply being told the bloody, scheming, erotic and shocking tale of Rome's ruling dynasty at the peak of its imperial power, spun out as an captivating yarn.
While never claiming officially to be an historian Graves was a close descendant of German historian Leopold von Ranke and prized historical accuracy. So much, if not all of the two books is historically accurate, a perspective which serves as the binding sauce to Graves' words and Runger's delivery.
One of my very best Audible purchases, which I will listen to again and again.
I am loth to lament the passing of anything to do with Shakespeare as we have seen the astonishing durability of his work over the centuries. But I do have to wonder whether we will ever hear work of this quality again.
At least five years to grow the voice. A similar time spent on the texts, against a background where the study of grammar and the philology of English was a given in any high school. This was the expected investment of any actor playing Shakespeare on the English professional stage at the time this recording was made.
I'm not talking about the requirements to play Hamlet, or Claudius. I refer to those who play Horatio, or the grave-digger, or the 'boy' in the players.
The result was a radiant and transparent reading of the text, fully understood - line, word and pause - by every player.
And of course, their understanding of and absorption in the text means we are hearing people who appear to be simply voicing their own thoughts, their own feelings.
The result is that all obscurity is dispelled. The way the human brain works, we now know, is by a kind of paint-by-dots. You don't have to see every detail to see the whole picture, nor do you have to hear and understand every word to understand what is being said.
It adds up to an almost magic accessibility of language which, when we read it on the page, seems difficult, odd, at times meaningless in the 21st Century.
Don't care much for Shakespeare? Too much like hard work?
Don't say that until you have heard this glorious performance. If you don't 'get' this, then you really don't get it and might as well give the Bard a miss.
I am sure you are very much fewer than is commonly believed. I am sure that for most people their difficulty with the plays of Shakespeare is that they have seen it acted by players who were clutching at the meaning with tips of their fingers, instead of breathing it in and out as their native air itself.
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