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To the last syllable

Every single word in every single play written by the Bard has been recorded on 98 CDs for 'The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare.' The 41/2-year project involved 400 actors -- and one director.

August 03, 2003|David Gritten | Special to The Times London

"Men of few words are the best men."-- from "Henry V" Act 3, Scene 2

Coming from William Shakespeare, it's a pretty ironic comment, given that he wrote hundreds of thousands of words himself -- in poems and in 38 plays. But what words. Words that resonate down the ages more than four centuries later. Words that read brilliantly on the page but are shown to their best advantage when spoken.

And this is where "The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare" comes in. In this mammoth undertaking, all of Shakespeare's plays have been produced on CDs in their entirety, without a single word of the Bard's being cut. The plays are now available as a boxed set; it is the first time in audio publishing history that one creative team has achieved such a gargantuan task.

How gargantuan? The set consists of 98 CDs, with a total playing time of almost 102 hours. All of the plays were recorded in studios in London, and almost 400 British actors -- many of them members of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Royal National Theatre -- were employed. The distinguished names that can be heard on various plays include John Gielgud (who recorded two roles before his death), Eileen Atkins, Joseph Fiennes, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale, Damian Lewis and Alan Howard -- the cream of British stage actors.

All this took 4 1/2 years, and, astonishingly, one man directed every play. Clive Brill, who spent seven years producing drama for BBC radio and six more for BBC television, agreed to embark on the entire Shakespeare canon in 1996.

That was the year he was approached by Tom Treadwell, a British university professor who specialized in Elizabethan drama. Treadwell, who had just retired, had long nurtured the dream to produce an audio version of all Shakespeare's plays in their entirety and formed Arkangel Productions to achieve his ambition.

Treadwell had heard a BBC radio play Brill had produced and contacted him to see if he would participate. "My only condition was that I could do them all," recalled Brill, 42, at his East London home. "The bigness was part of the attraction.

"The original idea was that I'd do all the plays in 3 1/2 years, but it ended up being 4 1/2. We started with 'Romeo and Juliet' in the middle of 1996, and we ended, deliberately, with 'The Winter's Tale' around Christmas 2000."

Because Brill had produced British radio plays, he already knew many of the 400 actors who participated. "There's a certain amount of shorthand that goes into radio drama," he said. "I'd make sure I knew about half the actors."

Gielgud, who played Time in "The Winter's Tale" a month before his death, was in frail health. "But I don't think ours was his last performance," Brill said. "I'd love to say it was, but I think he sneaked in one other small thing before he died."

Simon Russell Beale, today one of the respected actors on the British stage, played Hamlet, and Imogen Stubbs was his Ophelia. Lester, who received rave reviews for his performance as Henry V in the National's current production, played Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar." Treadwell was disappointed not to secure the services of the great Shakespearean actor Paul Scofield to play Lear; instead, the role went to the lesser-known Trevor Peacock, who is highly rated among the British acting fraternity.

Brill took advantage of a delightful tradition among British actors, even eminent ones, who are happy to record radio plays for next to no money if they find themselves free to do so. They regard it as being all in a day's (or a week's) work.

"Each actor was paid the same day rate," he recalled. "If they showed up for a day and said even a single line, they got paid. On a per-production basis, the budget was around 25,000 to 30,000 pounds [$40,000 to $48,000], so no one will get rich." He devoted about six weeks to each play, including an initial two-week reading period for himself. Each production was then scheduled for five days, in one of two London studios.

Brill estimated the total budget for the 38 plays at $4 million. "That's why we need to sell a lot of sets," he joked. "The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare" is released by the Audio Partners Publishing Corp., based in Auburn, Calif.

One composer for all the plays

Listening to a selection of the plays, one is struck by the clarity of the recording and the precise, thoughtful delivery of Shakespeare's verse. Brill has gone to great lengths to encourage his casts to bring out the meaning of the Bard's words. It's also notable that even actors in minor roles are hugely competent.

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