This production of Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton, was recorded in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City during a spectacular season for Broadway. It was the year of Carol Channing's Hello Dolly, Barbra Streisand's Funny Girl, and Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. Noel Coward, Arthur Miller and Alec Guinness were also on the Great White Way that year. But the show that created the most excitement was Richard Burton's Hamlet. Given the importance of the show, a film was made of a single performance. At Burton's insistence, after screening the film for just two days, all copies were destroyed except for one that went to the British Film Institute and one that went to Burton's home. 25 years after the stage production, Burton's widow allowed this audio recording to be made from her copy. This performance differs from other recordings of Hamlet, not only because of Burton and Gielgud, but because it is a live recording of an actual performance on Broadway, not in a recording studio.
"You get the immediacy of a live production of Hamlet on Broadway in the nervousness of the actors, knowing that they can't go back on it, that this is for all time, unlike films, where you can if you make a mistake go back and do it again. The particular intensity and nerves of this is probably the same kind of thing that excites a real audience in a real theatre." - Richard Burton
For more informative lectures about this work, don't miss A Study Guide to Hamlet.
Or, listen to a conversation with Professor Harold Bloom.
Raucous, chaotic, passionate
This is a recording of an actual performance, with audience.
So at times, the voices are less-than-perfectly recorded and hard to understand.
But the overall effect is powerful and driven largely by Richard Burton's very passionate Hamlet. He belts out many lines, but knows how to tone it down when appropriate.
Oh, and Polonious: is that John Lithgow? I suspect that he was younger than Richard Burton at the time but it sure sounds like him.
A collector’s item for the theatre lover
For once iTunes has offered a preview that is a reasonable sample of the product. In fact, most of the play is marginally more audible than this snippet. Still, it is not so clear that I would comfortably recommend it to anybody who was not already familiar enough with Hamlet to be able to follow along when the reverberation makes the words hard to understand.
In addition to Burton’s extraordinarily energetic Hamlet, this generally strong cast includes an outstanding performance by Hume Cronyn as Polonius, and a wonderfully sepulchral ghost from John Gielgud.
There is a grainy black-and-white video version available elsewhere, but the camera adds very little to what looks like a rehearsal.