The NAB Blog

Drama on Audiobook

By Nicolas Soames

1 October 2008

The Merchant of Venice, which we release this month in a new production with Sir Antony Sher as Shylock and Emma Fielding as Portia, is our eleventh Shakespeare title. Actually, we have thirteen Shakespeares, because we also have the remarkable John Gielgud Hamlet and the, I must say, equally remarkable Donmar Warehouse production of Othello with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role and Ewan McGregor as Iago.

We have other dramas as well, including Pygmalion, Oedipus, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Blithe Spirit, and Hedda Gabler (outstanding performances from Juliet Stevenson and Michael Maloney). And, on a regular basis, we are asked for more drama, both classics and more modern plays. Only today, we had a call from a Naxos AudioBooks collector suggesting that we do Sheridan’s The Rivals.

Quite often, when I go to the theatre, I come away thinking about how striking the play would be on audiobook, or that here was a remarkable performance that should be preserved in one form or another. For drama on audiobook can be something very special: the listener is drawn right into the intimacy of theatre, giving an experience which is akin to but different from performance in a playhouse.

I thought this only last week, when I went to the Donmar Warehouse production of Chekhov’s Ivanov, at Wyndham’s Theatre in the heart of London’s West End. The big draw, not to put too fine a point on it, was Kenneth Branagh playing the title role; but it is the total effect of the evening that, a week later, still rings in my consciousness.

Branagh gave a completely committed performance, on two occasions breaking down in a way that was totally believable – wholly in keeping with the play’s Russian intensity and the heightened emotional expression of its characters. But he and Grandage, with the help of a new version by Tom Stoppard, have perfectly matched the Russian-ness of the production – the gestures, the sentiments – with the English theatre context.

They managed a truly remarkable juggling act between deeply felt emotions and high (and sometimes low) comedy. At one point, on one part of the stage, Ivanov was in turmoil, and at the very same time there were little comic turns going on elsewhere. The conjunction, somehow, worked – perfect timing on the part of the actors and director.

As so often with productions in which Branagh is involved, Ivanov is not a start vehicle but a company production… frankly there was a perceptible richness of presentation even in the non-speaking servant roles!

I would love to give you Ivanov on audiobook… but alas commercial pressures make that impossible. It would come out as a 2- or possibly 3-CD set, and very regrettably it is unlikely that it would break even in five years or more. It is as simple as that. Even a co-production with BBC Radio 3 (as we did with Othello) would be of questionable commercial sense. Shakespeare has a far greater worldwide audience than an early Chekhov – in translation!

So all you who would love to listen to new productions from the theatre of Sheridan or Shaw, let alone Molière or Goethe or Miller, I am afraid it is a question of patronage! Or it is a question of turning to some of the great historical recordings that we are starting to release, such as The Playboy of the Western World or the Gielgud Hamlet

Nicolas Soames

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