'Infinite variety'

From tomorrow such legendary theatrical moments as Paul Scofield's 1964 King Lear and Janet Suzman's Cleopatra of 1973 - performances that have existed only in the memories of theatregoers - can be heard by the public once more.

Gregory Doran, associate director at the RSC, has selected 20 complete scenes from 18 plays for the double CD.

His choices range from Donald Sinden's 1971 Malvolio in John Barton's production of Twelfth Night, to Alan Rickman's melancholic, dry-as-a-bone Jaques in the 1986 As You Like It.

"I had no idea that the recordings existed, but suddenly there you were listening to Laurence Olivier doing Coriolanus, something I thought had completely disappeared," he said.

Choosing between the many interpretations of great roles such as Hamlet and Henry V was punishing. The director John Barton, according to Doran, suggested it would be invidious to select a single Hamlet. In the end he chose David Warner's 1966 version - at the time revolutionary for its naturalism and youthfulness. Nostalgia caused him to plump for Richard Pasco's Richard II from 1974, which he saw as a schoolboy.

"These are personal options so it's in no sense supposed to be 'definitive'," he said, adding that he hoped there would soon be a volume two.

"I'm sure people will be saying, 'Where's David Suchet's Shylock? Where are Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stevenson?"

The peculiar quality of these live recordings, as Steve Cleary, curator of drama and literature at the sound archive said, is that "it gives you a sense of what it was like to be in that audience". "There's an astonishing immediacy," added Doran. "Of course sometimes there are fluffs; and sometimes a whole performance is ruined by someone in the audience having a coughing fit." Lines are sometimes obscured by laughs, and the listener can only imagine, or if lucky remember, the visual gags. "There's a whole five-minute laugh for Donald Sinden's Malvolio," said Doran, "at the moment when he entered the garden, checked his watch against the sundial, and then altered the sundial."

It will be for the listener to judge whether today's demotic immediacy wins out over the verse-speaking technique that once prevailed.

"It's really good for young actors to hear the speed and dexterity of some of the old performances," Doran said. "To listen to the greats doing Shakespeare with such ease, and realising the skills required to create the illusion of such ease, is very important."

David Oyelowo, whose Henry VI, in Michael Boyd's 2001 production, is on the CD, said: "There's a joy and a sadness in the fact that as a theatre actor your toil will live on only in people's minds. I feel honoured to be heard alongside the actors who inspired me to become an actor - but I'm also excited at the prospect of hearing what all the fuss was about."

Masters at work

Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington picks four mighty performances that made Doran's desert island disc.

Laurence Olivier Coriolanus (Coriolanus, 1959)

This is something else. I recall, to this day, Olivier's electrifying presence and sensational death-fall as he hung, head downwards like Mussolini, from a Tarpeian rock. On disc, you become more conscious of Olivier's laser-like voice and ability to colour language. Gielgud gave you the architecture of a speech; Olivier illuminated key phrases. When, on banishment, he tells the people "your enemies, with nodding of their plumes, fan you into despair" he hits the verb to highlight Coriolanus's contempt for a rabble defeated by show.

Peggy Ashcroft, Queen Margaret (The Wars of the Roses, 1964)

What astonishes still is the decorous Dame Peg so transforming herself into the battle-roused Margaret daubing the captive York in his children's blood. It was a feat of impersonation: Ashcroft uses the soft "r" of an Anjou-born queen ("wast you that wevelled in our parliament?"). But I suspect she dug deep into some inner, long-buried rage. The mocking laugh when she places a paper crown on York's head chills the blood.

Judi Dench, The Countess (All's Well That Ends Well, 2002)

The danger with the Countess is of condescending graciousness, "like royalty opening a bazaar", as Tynan once said. Dench, however, finds infinite variety in the big scene with the lovestruck Helena. There is a recollected rapture in "even so it was with me when I was young". But there is also irony, mischief and impatience ("I say I am your mother") in her teasing of Helena. She is always specific; which is what makes her a great actress.

Alan Howard, Henry V (Henry V, 1975)

Howard in the 1970s worked his way from Richard II to Richard III. Nothing topped his Henry V; what staggers one is his vocal control. He has the Olivier gift for seizing on a word. After the mocking tennis-ball gift, he icily retorts "We are glad the Dauphin is so PLEASANT with us." But he takes the speech on an arc of menace, and, reaching a fortissimo climax, pauses before "So get you hence in peace." It gets a laugh; it reminds you of the technical finesse we took for granted. ...

and two gems that didn't

Eric Porter, Ulysses (Troilus and Cressida, 1960)

A prince amongst verse-speakers: Porter could expose the sinews of thought beneath the flesh of rhetoric, and perfectly embodied Peter Hall's dream of a witty, intelligent approach to language. In Ulysses's complex speech on time, Porter unpicked each image and, by manual and verbal emphasis, gave it concrete life. At the end, he got an exit-round in acknowledgement of a feat of sheer technical bravura.

John Wood, King Lear (King Lear, 1990)

Wood is an original: a thinking actor who takes nothing for granted. Not even with Scofield have I seen a Lear catch so well the character's contradictions. Having cursed Goneril with sterility, Wood rushed to give her a paternal embrace. Even in his dementia, he pursued Poor Tom like an anthropologist looking for the meaning of life. A Lear abolishing the division between madness and sanity by existing in both at once.

Disc 1 includes:

Coriolanus Directed by Peter Hall July 1959, Stratford-upon-Avon From Act 3, Scene 3, cast: Laurence Olivier (Coriolanus), Harry Andrews (Menenius) Michael Blakemore (First Senator), Kenneth Gilbert (Aedile) Peter Woodthorp (Brutus) and Paul Hardwick (Cominius)
Wars of the Roses Directed by Peter Hall and John Barton 31 October 1964, Stratford-upon-Avon. From King Henry VI Part 3, Act 1, Scene 4, cast: Donald Sinden (York), Peggy Ashcroft (Queen Margaret) (), John Corvin (Clifford)
King Lear Directed by Peter Brook 12 February 1964, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 4, Scene 6, cast: Paul Scofield (King Lear), Brian Murray (Edgar), John Laurie (Earl of Gloucester)
Hamlet Directed by Peter Hall 9 March 1966, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 3, Scene 1, cast: David Warner (Hamlet)
Twelfth Night Directed by John Barton 22 February 1971, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 2, Scene 5, cast: Donald Sinden (Malvolio), Tony Church (Sir Toby Belch), Alton Kumalo (Fabian) Jeffery Dench (Sir Andrew Aguecheek)
Julius Caesar Directed by Trevor Nunn 28 November 1973, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 1, Scene 2, cast: Patrick Stewart (Caius Cassius), John Wood (Marcus Brutus)
Antony and Cleopatra Directed by Trevor Nunn 12 December 1973, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 2, Scene 5, cast: Janet Suzman (Cleopatra), Joseph Charles (Messenger) Rosemary McHale (Charmian) and Sidney Livingstone (Mardian).
Richard II Directed by John Barton 23 October 1974, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 4, Scene 1, cast: Richard Pasco (Richard II), Sebastian Shaw (Duke of York), Ian Richardson (Henry Bolingbroke), Clement McCallum (Northumberland)
Romeo and Juliet Directed by Trevor Nunn 4 August 1977, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 2, Scene 2, cast: Ian McKellen (Romeo), Francesca Annis (Juliet), Marie Kean (Nurse)

Disc Two Includes:

Henry V Directed by Terry Hands 18 February 1976, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 1, Prologue, cast: Emrys James (Chorus)
Henry V Directed by Terry Hands 25 April 1978, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 1, Scene 2, cast: Alan Howard (King Henry V), Oliver Ford Davies (First Ambassador), Edwin Richfield (Exeter)
The Comedy of Errors Directed by Trevor Nunn 13 August 1977, Aldwych Theatre, London. From Act 3, Scene 2, cast: Roger Rees (Antipholus of Syracuse), Michael Williams (Dromio of Syracuse)
The Tempest Directed by Ron Daniels 3 November 1983, Barbican Theatre, London. From Act 5, Scene 1, cast: Derek Jacobi (Prospero), Mark Rylance (Ariel)
Richard III Directed by Bill Alexander 11 June 1985, Barbican Theatre, London. From Act 1, Scene 2, cast: Antony Sher (Gloucester), Penny Downie (Lady Anne)
As You Like It Directed by Adrian Noble 30 January 1986, Barbican Theatre, London. From Act 2, Scene 7c Cast: Joseph O’Connor (Duke Senior), Alexander Wilson (First Lord), Alan Rickman (Jaques ), Orlando (Hilton McRae), Andrew Yeats (Amiens)
The Merry Wives of Windsor Directed by Bill Alexander 7 February, 1986, Barbican Theatre, London. From Act 2, Scene 1, cast: Janet Dale (Mistress Page), Lindsay Duncan (Mistress Ford)
Titus Andronicus Directed by Deborah Warner 13 July 1988, Pit, Barbican, London. From Act 3, Scene 2, cast: Brian Cox (Titus Andronicus), Donald Sumpter (Marcus Andronicus) Jeremy Gilley (Young Lucius)
Henry IV Part 1 Directed by Adrian Noble 13 May 1992, Barbican Theatre, London. From Act 5, Scene 1, cast: Robert Stephens (Sir John Falstaff), Michael Maloney (Prince Henry)
Henry VI Part 3 Directed by Michael Boyd 2001, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. From Act 2, Scene 5, cast: David Oyelowo (King Henry VI)
All’s Well that Ends Well Directed by Gregory Doran 2002, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. From Act 1, Scene 2, cast: Judi Dench (Countess Rossillion), Arthur Kohn (Steward), Claudie Blakley (Helena)

The British Library Sound Archive is one of the largest sound archives in the world. It holds over a million discs, 200,000 tapes, and many other sound and video recordings. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature, to oral history and wildlife sounds. Collection material comes in every conceivable format, from wax cylinder and wire recordings to CD and DVD, and from a wide variety of private, commercial and broadcast sources. And of course, the British Library Sound Archive operates a wide-ranging recording programme of its own.

Since 1964, the location recording programme of the Sound Archive's Drama and Literature collection has yielded an almost unbroken sequence of live audio recordings of RSC productions given in London. This recording programme was sustained till the end of the Barbican era when a partnership agreement was developed between the British Library and the RSC whereby the RSC records performances at Stratford-upon-Avon , the Sound Archive studio processes the material, and both the Sound Archive and the Shakespeare Centre Library at Stratford receive a copy on CD format. 3.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is one of the world's best-known theatre companies and plays to over 500 000 theatregoers each year world wide. The RSC plays throughout the year at its home in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where Shakespeare was born and died. The Company also performs regularly in London and at an annual RSC residency in Newcastle Upon Tyne. In addition, the Company tours throughout the UK and internationally. The Company’s mission is to keep in touch with Shakespeare as a contemporary, but also to keep modern audiences, artists and writers in touch with Shakespeare. The Company's repertoire also includes other Renaissance dramatists, and the work of international and contemporary writers. The aim is to give as many people as possible, from all walks of life, a richer and fuller understanding of theatre. Through events, education and outreach programmes the RSC continually strives to engage people with the experience of live performance.

The RSC today is still at the heart an ensemble company. Everyone in the Company, from directors, actors and writers to production, administrative, technical and workshop staff, all collaborate in the RSC distinctive and unmistakable approach to theatre.

Charlotte Higgins

The Guardian, 26.10.05

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