The NAB Blog

Naxos AudioBooks, Shakespeare and Hollywood

By Nicolas Soames

1 August 2014

Curiously, perhaps, we at Naxos AudioBooks have never really been in the celebrity game, unlike so many other audiobook labels. Of course, we like stars just as much as the next person, but we don’t seem to trumpet them in the way the press and PR departments of larger publishing companies enjoy.

Michael Sheen, Kate Beckinsale and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Michael Sheen, Kate Beckinsale and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Of course, regular readers of my blog will know that I retain immense respect and admiration for those readers who spend more time in the studios than the publicity columns – the readers who can tell a story; present a panoply of characters all on their own; who can record Dickens or Brontë for hours, engaging the listener every second.

But looking through our recordings over the past couple of decades it is clear that we have had a regular flow-through of international figures – actors who decided to take time off from the more glitzy (and better paid) film projects because we offered something that they really wanted to do. Or we caught them young, before the glare of the spotlight fell upon them.

What follows is an unashamed trumpeting of some of these actors, who are embedded in the Naxos AudioBooks catalogue – and who you just may have missed.

Most great actors want to do Shakespeare. Michael Sheen, one of the most exceptional and versatile performers to come out of English drama schools in the last twenty years, first recorded Crime and Punishment (abridged) for us, only a year or so after leaving RADA. His intelligence and remarkable ability were evident, and soon after we offered him the chance not only to perform Romeo (with his then-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale as Juliet) but also to direct it. I think it remains one of the finest audiobook recordings of the play available, even though he decided not to pursue a career as a director.

Kenneth Branagh, Paul Scofield and Fiona Shaw

Kenneth Branagh, Paul Scofield and Fiona Shaw

Kenneth Branagh also came to Naxos AudioBooks first of all through Shakespeare – he wanted to record King Richard III and it was Michael Sheen who kindly recommended us. Branagh said very clearly he didn’t want to direct (leaving that to David Timson), just to perform – the result is chilling.

Shortly after that I received a phone call, completely out of the blue, from former BBC Radio 4 head of speech John Tydeman who said that Paul Scofield wanted to record King Lear for his 80th birthday, and would we be interested. Yes please! This is now part of audiobook history, not least because the assembled cast (with Kenneth Branagh making a highly inventive contribution as the Fool) is remarkable – check out the list!

Mr Tydeman followed that up with Sir Ian McKellen (on a break from filming The Lord of the Rings) as Prospero in The Tempest. It was another memorable recording, not least because there, as Ferdinand, is a very young Benedict Cumberbatch. Now, of course, Cumberbatch is the hottest property, rocketed into the stratosphere by Sherlock Holmes. But it is not just with hindsight that we can look back and remark upon his effulgent talent. He was a star then – even off the mike it was evident that here was an actor going places.

Sir Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch

Sir Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch

In 2007 Naxos AudioBooks brought into the studio Michael Grandage’s highly individual production of Othello towards the end of its hit run at the Donmar Warehouse.

It was the casting of Ewan McGregor as Iago that attracted the headlines, and his performance translated superbly into the audiobook medium despite relatively little radio experience. But he was matched by Chiwitel Ejiofor as a totally believable warrior figure wracked by the ‘green-eyed monster’. This was before Ejiofor hit Hollywood and many years before 12 Years a Slave. Also, note the Cassio – Tom Hiddleston, another actor who is now a Hollywood name.

I could go on – and I will: Fiona Shaw, directing Macbeth and playing Lady Macbeth, Samuel West as Henry V, etc.

And finally, while on Shakespeare, there is From Shakespeare – with Love, the anthology of the most popular Sonnets, with a starry cast headed by David Tennant. He was very busy being Doctor Who at the time, as I recall, but found the time to pop into our studio to read, among others, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? He was joined by Juliet Stevenson, Maxine Peake and many others – and what a time was had by all!

So, we have star-studded Shakespeare. But that is not all. More to come on stars/Hollywood next month!

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