The Essential Shakespeare Live Encore

Royal Shakespeare Company and British Library
Two compact discs
147 minutes £15 99
(2009)

It goes without saying that the RSC has probably produced a stronger body of Shakespeare in performance than any other company in the world. Therefore, when the company chooses to delve into the archives to provide extracts from productions, it will inevitably unearth something special.

In 2005, the RSC produced its first double disc collection, The Essential Shakespeare Live with the assistance of the British Library. A mere 2¼ hours can only scratch the surface and therefore these two of the most august bodies in the country have collaborated on a second selection, which one hopes will not be the last.

There is one problem that the sound engineers have not always overcome, which is the fact that the performances recorded were not directed specifically for this purpose. On occasion, it almost sounds as if an audience member has smuggled a tape recorder into the theatre in his or her pocket to make a bootleg tape of the kind that used to be sold in Camden Market, although those tended to be of rock concerts by obscure bands. In order to help out, the discs come with a booklet containing the complete texts of every extract, together with some rather attractive photos to whet the appetite.

Despite issues of sound quality, once again The Essential Shakespeare Live Encore has many riches within the 21 scenes and speeches that cover the last half-century.

This time around, while many of the performers may be big names, the scenes and plays chosen are frequently not the most obvious. This is in some cases a blessing as it offers novelty rather than familiarity, although one really wishes that in some cases it might have been possible to listen to big names from the past delivering the really iconic speeches.

Many might feel that the cost of the disc is justified from a handful of the pieces. Indeed, the first is outstanding as it features Paul Robeson playing Othello. While it may not be easy to decipher the words of his fellows, the American actor and singer has the most incredibly resonant voice, one that might perhaps be most closely compared with the opera singer Willard White playing the same role.

At the other end of the two disc set is a much more contemporary hero, David Tennant playing Hamlet, much to the chagrin of this reviewer who, like so many in London, missed out after the actor's back gave way during rehearsals. He gives glimpses of the magnitude of our loss while winding up Oliver Ford Davies' very straitlaced Polonius. The good news is that the RSC is planning to release a DVD of the production early in the New Year.

There are many choice pleasures in between. In this medium, voice can be all and that is why the very finest actors are best remembered. Judi Dench is excellent playing the dual roles of Perdita and Hermione in Trevor Nunn's The Winter's Tale from 1971 and is more than matched by both Simon Russell Beale as a mischievously tempting Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and inevitably, Ian McKellen a couple of years ago, demonstrating his brilliance as King Lear before he utters a word - even his moans speak volumes.

There really is something for everybody, whether your taste runs to Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream with Alan Howard, Ben Kingsley and Frances de la Tour; Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack in Macbeth; Roger Allam and Susan Fleetwood playing Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado; or something less well known such as Henry VIII or King John.

Although the sound quality can be challenging on occasion, this is another Shakespearean feast that will bring back happy memories or make one pine for unrepeatable performances of long ago. As such, it will inevitably prove a popular Christmas gift -- maybe even to oneself.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher