Listening to history

7th October 2016

Perhaps I’ve mentioned that I am writing a book about screen adaptations of Royal Shakespeare Company productions? I’m currently in the middle of researching and drafting the first of six chapters, which is intended both to introduce the key ideas of the volume and to explore media versions of productions from the Stratford Memorial Theatre before 1960. That was the year that Peter Hall created the RSC out of a company that had a history going back to 1879.

Before 1960 there were both film and television versions of Stratford productions, although the dominant adaptation medium was radio. Radio, I recognise, doesn’t entirely align with ‘screen’, but even so wireless versions of interwar and post-war Stratford stagings feel like they should be part of my story. We have no recordings of most of these, but there is at least one very remarkable – and I think all-but-unknown – archival survivor. Today I heard, some 67 years after it was broadcast, a recording of Peter Brook’s ground-breaking 1950 Stratford production of Measure for Measure with John Gielgud and Barbara Jefford.

Access to this remarkable trace of theatre history was facilitated by the British Library’s wonderful Listening and Viewing Service. Anyone with a reader’s pass can make an appointment to listen to the astonishing collection of recordings held at the BL. (The British Library website also has an excellent article by Kate Chedzgoy about Measure for Measure‘s reputation as a ‘problem’ play.) When you turn up in the Rare Books Reading Room they direct you to a glass cubicle equipped with a CD player, and then a curator delivers the discs. I sat down, put on the headphones and was transported back to 2.30pm on 23 April 1950.

The day, of course, was Shakespeare’s birthday, and the BBC has long transmitted special programmes to mark this, as indeed it did this year with Shakespeare Live! From the RSC. But I remain a little surprised that the Home Service was happy to broadcast in an afternoon slot a play about sexual blackmail and pregnancy and a bed trick and prostitutes. Presumably it was felt that Shakespeare’s language was so obscure and his standing so great that no delicate denizens of Tunbridge Wells would be offended.

The authoritative and essential Shakespeare database online at Learning on Screen says of this recording, ‘No archive copy known’. So even though it has been hiding in plain sight in the BL catalogue I felt as if, apart from the engineer who in the 1990s made a digital copy from vinyl recordings, I was perhaps the first person to listen to this in more than half a century. The sound quality is very clear, although there’s a persistent crackle that gets a little worse towards the end. Despite some occasional verbal stumbles, the performances come across wonderfully well, as do some – but far from all – of the distinctive qualities of Brook’s ground-breaking production.

Measure for Measure was the third Stratford production entrusted to Brook, who was only 25 at the time. The setting throughout, which he also designed, was an austere array of grey stone pillars, and the staging, with no music apart from an occasional drum or trumpet, had a comparably stripped-back feel. The BBC recording was clearly made in a studio with the Stratford cast, but it too has no music. It would appear also to be the full version of what was played at Stratford, although this will need to be checked against the prompt book. The text has been filleted throughout and the murderer Barnadine is banished, but all of the key scenes are present, and on a first hearing nothing would seem to have been cut on the grounds of taste.

Brook himself radically cut the text, and his simplification was felt by critics at the time to have brought a clarity to the play that it was often felt to have lacked. More than one critic has described this version as a ‘landmark’ for the play, even if it is recognised that the director removed some of the ambiguity of motivation for the central characters. In his introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, Brian Gibbons writes:

Brook reinforced the admirable characteristics of Isabella and the Duke, and gave Angelo a context in which agonising struggle demonstrated his ‘twisted nobility,’ and he gave this area of the play a less devious plot. What Brook did to the scenes of low-life was to make them a genuine counterweight; this demonstration of their power is of major importance, marking the modern rediscovery of the play’s full design.

John Gielgud plays Angelo with a measured, rational manner that is chilling as he attempts to blackmail Isabella (Barbara Jefford) into his bed. In the best radio manner, the production comes across as surprisingly intimate, with an especially fine performance by Harry Andrews as Duke Vincentio. Alan Badel is there is the cast as well, playing the erring Claudio. (The Guardian website features a richly vivid, anonymous review of the first night.)


As was often the way at the time with stage productions recorded for radio, producer E.A. Harding added a narrator, who in this case was Robert Hardy. In a modest, neutral way, Hardy sets the scenes and explains key action points that would have been visually realised in the theatre. This is the way in which the adaptation opens:

The setting of this drama is the medieval city of Vienna. The action takes place in the palaces, the prisons, the streets, the public places and the religious houses of the time. The ruler of the city is Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, who has given out that he is going on a mission to Poland and will be away for an indefinite period. During his absence the government is to be entrusted to a depth, the Lord Angelo. Angelo will share the dignity of office as Deputy with an older nobleman named Escalus. The plays begins on the eve of the Duke’s departure.

Among much else, the production is remembered for a climactic moment of great power. The critic J.C. Trewin saw the production and later wrote a very good biography of Peter Brook in which he wrote:

At the end Brook used another of his charged and daring pauses, this time before Isabella, at “Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d”, knelt to plead for the life of Angelo. He asked Barbara Jefford to pause each night until she felt that the audience could stand it no longer. The silence lasted at first for about thirty-five seconds, On some nights it would extend to two minutes. “The silence,” Brook said, “became a voodoo-pole – a silence in which all the inevitable elements of the evening came together, a silence in which the abstract notion of mercy became concrete for that moment to this present”.

Some have been sceptical that the pause ever lasted for two minutes, but certainly the scene made a great impression on all who saw the show. Sadly, that was not – perhaps could not be – carried across to the radio, where even a 10-second silence would have had engineers and listeners alike fiddling with their dials. So instead, after the Duke pronounces of Angelo, ‘He dies for Claudio’s death’, there is just a beat before Robert Hardy’s almost apologetic narrator breaks in:

Isabella looks steadfastly at Angelo and then falls to her knees before the Duke.

Another beat, and Isabella continues, with, ‘Most bounteous sir, / Look if it please you on this man condemned.’ There may not be a lengthy theatrical pause but, as preserved in this rare recording, Jefford’s quiet moment of mercy is still exceptionally moving.

Image: taken from the Radio Times listing for the production on 23 April 1950.


  1. You will of course let Learning On Screen know of their modest lapse so that the database can be updated.


  2. David Herman says:

    Dear John, I am thrilled to hear about your book. I would be very grateful if you could let me know a couple of months before publication date. Good luck with it.

    • John Wyver says:

      Many thanks, David. I most certainly shall, although it’s a good way off yet. I have to deliver the manuscript in December 2017, and then publication will either be autumn 2018 or early 2019. I’ve only just started but I’m really enjoying researching it – and the RSC has *such* a rich adaptation history, a good deal of it (like this recording of Brook’s production) all-but unknown.

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