Shakespeare Saturday: Orson Welles Does Shakespeare

No, not like that! Get your mind out of the gutter, Cactus friends… *insert exasperated eye roll*
I kid! If anyone was thinking it, it was me. Anyway, welcome, one and all, to Shakespeare Saturday! In today’s edition: Orson Welles has his way with the bard. (Seriously, stop snickering.)

You may associate Orson Welles with his cinematic masterpiece – Citizen Kane – or perhaps you recall his hand in the famed radio reading of War of the Worlds. In either case, you’ve probably heard the name. At the very least you’ve probably had some idiot reference “Rosebud” at you whether you have seen the damn film or not. (Ok, I admit it, I hate Citizen Kane. I realize he made a number of important breakthroughs in the field of cinematography, but it is one long, boring, piece of garbage. There, I said it. Sorry not sorry.)

OK, SO… Where was I? Oh! Orson Welles: famous actor, director, writer, eccentric, etc. He was also a very successful actor/director/producer of the stage, mounting several audacious classical revivals in his ongoing experiments with art. One of his most famous Broadway offerings was a particularly chilling interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1937 during the rise of the Nazi empire. He dressed the soldiers in costumes resembling Nazi black shirts and lit the entire play to mimic the setting of a Nuremburg rally. Audiences were creeped out, critics were creeped out, I’m creeped out… But it generated a lot of attention, jolting many viewers into awareness, and landed Welles on the cover of Time. Neat. But this was not the only time Welles tackled the vast works of William Shakespeare. Far from it.

That which I really wanted to touch upon today is Welles’ Shakespearean radio plays. He did quite a few of them, at least ten of which are available online. I, myself, spent the evening listening to the first segment of his presentation of Hamlet. Due to radio time constraints he only presented the first two acts in the episode which I listened to, but I was quite impressed with the clear interpretation delivered by the actors. Often with Shakespeare it helps to be watching the play due to the obvious difference in speech, but the intonations and objectives were apparent and I could clearly envision the action. Being a radio play there was also the use of sound effects. I initially thought this would be detracting, but once I stopped envisioning the guy with the thunder sheet and the gravel box, I found that it was well-suited. Good on you, mister foley artist from 1936.

If you are interested in hearing Hamlet or any other of the Welles/Shakespeare offerings available at archive.org, I shall leave the link here for your perusal. It’s rather well done I think, so I hope you find some time to enjoy.

https://archive.org/details/Orson_Welles_Shakespeare_Collection

Happy listening!

A

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