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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Theatre For Thought, February 25, 2012

joel fishbane
As far as theatrical trends go, our obsession with One-Man Hamlets has to be one of the most bizarre. No one ever seems interested in solo-versions of King Lear or Henry VIII, yet new one-man versions are cropping up all the time (and yes, it is always one man). Artists who have tackled the idea include Clayton Jevne (Victoria), Michael Birch (New York) and the folks at the Classical Theatre Company in Texas. Until recently, the latest version was Rhaoul Baneja’s Hamlet (Solo) which has had a life of its own since appearing at Theatre Pass Mureille in Toronto. But Baneja will have to make some room on the bench: thanks to BJ Harrison, there’s a new one-man Hamlet in town.  

Harrison reads classic books, utilizing his incredible talent for voicework and characterization to bring the works to life.

If Harrison’s name provokes some head-scratching, it’s probably because you’re not a fan of the Classic Tales Podcast. Harrison is the chief cook and bottle washer of this humble little operation which, at last glance, had over 7 million downloads on iTunes (Harrison estimates about 20 000 downloads a week). The concept is simple: Harrison reads classic books, utilizing his incredible talent for voicework and characterization to bring the works to life. Over the years, he has tackled short stories, poetry and serialized novels by a cadre of famed authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Last week, Harrison launched his most ambitious project yet: a five-part unabridged reading of Hamlet. “Hamlet has been my favourite play for many, many years,” he reports on his blog. “If I had to point to one work of literature that has turned my casual pursuit of books into a passion for the classics, this is it.” 
Harrison isn’t a trained actor and he isn’t after interpretation, which may prove to be a blessing. A long time ago, someone put Hamlet on a high literary pedestal and actors often risk treating the text with the reverence of a religious tomb. Or, rather than create their own interpretation, they imitate the performances of presumed goliaths like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Harrison, though, is taking a much simpler approach. If the first instalment (corresponding with Act One) is any indication, his goal is to present the text as simply as he can. 
...he’s decided to precede each episode with an interpretive essay by Charles and Mary Lamb.

Given that his audience isn’t necessarily a theatrical one, he’s decided to precede each episode with an interpretive essay by Charles and Mary Lamb. I’ll admit to not being a fan of this decision, as I don’t like the idea of telling a reader what to think of a text. Still, one can’t fault his reasoning, especially given that the very word ‘Hamlet’ tends to scare people away (even the theatrical ones).
To delineate characters, Harrison also interpolates a narrative tag into the script - “To be or not to be”, says Hamlet, “that is the question.” It’s a little jarring to listen to and Harrison’s characterization is so distinct that I think he might be a little overly cautious. Though, to be fair, I know the play. Listeners approaching the text for the first time may appreciate a little hand-holding (or ear-holding, as the case may be). 
Audio presentations of Shakespeare, such as those presented by the Complete Arkangel Shakespeare, are perhaps my favourite way to enjoy the Bard: one can never be distracted by some director’s “clever” ideas. The audio format demands attention is always paid to the narrative and the script. Harrison’s other audio works have always demonstrated a fine dramatic flair and my hope is that, when completed, Harrison’s Hamlet will be a unique addition to this quirky theatrical niche. 
At the very least, he’s already demonstrated he knows a good Danish prince from a bad. “If I can turn out a better Hamlet than Mel Gibson,” says Harrison, “I would consider this endeavour a success.” 

You can subscribe to The Classic Tales via iTunes or visit Harrison at Instalments of Hamlet by William Shakespeare will be released every Friday from February 17 – March 16, 2012.

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