***WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS****
Although I’m not very good in maths, I know that according to one of its laws the order of the factors does not change the production. This is what A.J.Hartley and David Hewson have done with the Shakesperian Hamlet: none of the characters are what we thought they were according to William Shakespeare’s play. Claudius (my favourite character) is not a cold-hearted bastard but had his [particular] reasons, being his main fault to love Gertrude and the young Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not the elegant courtiers but a grotesque comic couple in the line of Elvis and Costello (or Totò and Peppino). Polonius is not the kind Santa Claus of Denmark’s court but ruthless and heartless, the epitome of what we know by the word “Machiavellian”. Ophelia is not so innocent, and not virginal at all. Gertrude is the big sacrificial victim of the court of Denmark. The absurd attachment of Hamlet to the ghost of his cruel father is difficult to understand. But, notwithstanding all this radical changes, the end of the plot remains unchanged. As Hamlet says in both works “all the rest is silence”.
Maybe for some purists these changes and plot twists are sacrilegious, as the authors have dared to take the Bard’s name in vain. But this not the case for a good part of the first wave of hearers, because we are used to it. I defined this novel in a previous post, when some extracts were released in April “a luxury fan-fic”. This group of hearers, to which I belong, have arrived to this peculiar Elsinore attracted by the narrator, Richard Armitage (with all the respect of the previous work of the authors which, personally speaking, I didn’t know). We are used to read in internet stories in which well-defined characters and plots are changed, twisted and re-written. That is what fan-fiction is about: to fill the gaps, to answer the many unanswered questions you pose on a story or a character already existent. The purists and bard-worshippers may think that to re-write Hamlet requires very few imagination or work, as the starting point is a piece that is “only” four hundred years old; something that, by the way, did Shakespeare himself as many of his plays are re-creations or re-elaborations of previous plays or novels. On the contrary, the good fan-fiction, as a good novel, and a good audio-book, requires work. And in fact my favourite passages of the audiobook are the “new” stories and sub plots. For instance the crude and heartbreaking scene of Hamlet’s birth. The new characters, as the young Yorick or the Scott Gregor Macbeth. The novel has plenty of something that I particularly appreciate and like: subtle references to other works of art, which are left by the authors in the path as Tom Thumb’s crumbs. The surname of the Scottish sellsword as a tribute to Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” and their previous successful audiobook. Richard Burbage, the leading man of the company of English actors, was the name of one of the most successful actors of Elizabethan theatre, and was the leading actor of the Chamberlain’s Men.
The continuous Italian references, Florence and the Medicis, the Florentine sculptor fond of daggers called Benvenuto [Cellini], the gardens of Boboli, the pose of the dwarf compared with the one of the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, the tapestry made in Italy with Venus, Mars and Vulcano (
I know I have seen it somewhere but I can’t remember where now… and this drives me crazy! please check the kind comment to this post of one of the authors to have more information about the source) , the daggers, the poison, the “new” Renaissance air which is arriving also to the cold North. The authors, as the witches in Macbeth, fill their cauldron with all these ingredients producing nine hours of magic and spell.
This post has already more than five hundred words and I have not written anything yet of the narrator… I guess that, in this moment, very few actors would have been able to narrate this book as Richard Armitage has. In my opinion the narration of an audiobook is by far more difficult than to participate in an audiodrama where the work is shared by a group of actors and the sound effects help the hearer’s imagination. Here everything is made by himself, pure acting, a man alone (with a director behind the booth) in front of a microphone. And, as happened in the beginning of times, when our ancestors gathered in front of the fire to hear the story teller, the magic is created, apparently from nothing. The magic potion cooked by the authors in their cauldron comes to life and his voice guides us to that world. The scene of the murder of Pollonius and the following dialogue, the confrontation between Gertrude and Hamlet, are one of the most moving performances that I have ever heard “I wonder how a woman who wept for THIS man goes to THIS in less time that take to a funeral banquet to ROT! I have dogs that are more loyal”, with the enhanced difficulty that between the “this man” and “goes to this”, the voice of Hamlet, broken by the emotion, is mixed with the impassive tone of the narrator. I guess this is something extremely difficult to make, technically speaking. Of all the repertoire of voices that Richard has created for this audiobook two are my favourite ones: Claudius and Gregor Macbeth. The voice of the king is the more “Thorin-like” of all: deep, profound, conveys perfectly to the reader the complexity of Claudius’ psychology “I killed your father for good reason… I never wanted your life too. Yet foul deeds begot others”.
Many other hearings of this audiobook will follow and I’m sure that with each of them I will discover something new.