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Bringing The Sounds And Drama Of 'Hamlet' To The Radio

Actor Grantham Coleman is Hamlet in The Old Globe's audio drama adaptation, "Hamlet on the Radio," which premieres on KPBS radio on Friday, Apr. 23, 2021.
Jim Cox
Actor Grantham Coleman is Hamlet in The Old Globe's audio drama adaptation, "Hamlet on the Radio," which premieres on KPBS radio on Friday, Apr. 23, 2021.

The Old Globe brings the politics, family sagas, ghosts and that epic sword fight in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to radio audiences.

The Old Globe brings the politics, family sagas, ghosts and that epic sword fight in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to radio audiences.

On any given stage, on any given day, it'd be a bummer for a young prince: his dad is dead, his mom is now married to his uncle, there's endless political and family drama and revenge, and then there's the matter of that ghost. Throw in some timeless one-liners and you have yourself a 400-year-old hit.

Shakespeare began writing "Hamlet" in 1599, and The Old Globe artistic director and nationally renowned Shakespeare scholar Barry Edelstein wants you to know that it can still feel new — even with theaters closed.

"'Hamlet' is a play that continues to reveal new things about itself each time you return to it," said Edelstein, who directed the Globe's adaptation of the play on the outdoor festival stage in 2017.


"Coming back to this play in the middle of the pandemic, themes in the play about loneliness and isolation and loss and grief seem more prominent than they did four years ago. And I would imagine that ten years from now, when I pick up the play and read it again, I'll find all kinds of other resonances in it. One of the things I think that has given it its ability to endure over the centuries is that it always has more layers, more levels, more depths to reveal of itself."

The Globe is taking it to new depths, by partnering with KPBS to adapt the work into a radio drama format.

To Be Or Not To Be Close To The Mic

Actors recorded individually, at home, usually in their closets for ideal sound dampening. The Globe's sound team stitched every line together afterwards, sometimes word-by-word, into a big, multi-layered final production.

Grantham Coleman played Hamlet in the Globe's 2017 production, and reprised the part for the radio drama. In a recent discussion with the Globe, Coleman talked about the changes he needed to consider to transform a role from extravagant outdoor setpieces and forty performances with large audiences.

"We played around with this very early on, but I think it's this very intimate, very close to the microphone, Hamlet-inside-his-mind, Laurence Olivier production, or do we hold true to what worked on stage which is loud and aggressive and fast! And we realized that the best, as always, is going to be a mix. It's always going to be a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And I think what changed the most is not relying or not being able to demonstrate much," Coleman said.


Edelstein agreed, and noted that Coleman is someone he considers to be one of the most exciting classical actors working right now.

"It's been such an honor to do this work with him and to watch him adjust to this medium. The microphone is a strange thing. It will lure you into a sense of intimacy and quiet and closeness," Edelstein said. "We did a lot of experimentation and thought, well, why don't we take advantage of the medium that we're in and try and exploit the fact that the microphone can draw the audience closer to us than they're able to get outdoors."

'A New Frontier Of Rolling With It'

Composer and professional sound designer Lindsay Jones has been working in theatrical sound since the mid-1990s, so he's seen his share of technological evolution.

But for the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, it took him a little while to draw on and trust that adaptability. "Gosh, everything I know how to do has been canceled," Jones remembers thinking. "When you work in the theater anyway, you always have to be super flexible. But this was a new frontier of rolling with it."

In a typical situation, a theatrical sound designer is responsible for everything an audience hears inside the theater: sound effects, the amplification and sound mix of actor voices and also music and compositions for effect, emotional context or score. Transforming stage sound for the radio was a different, though not wholly unfamiliar, approach.

"When you go into a theater, you're already accepting that there is only going to be a certain amount of reality that you'll experience, that a lot of it is suggestion. When you look at the stage, you see a set that is not a functioning piece of architecture and you know that, and so what happens is you use that set piece as a suggestion," Jones said.

An audio drama draws on that, according to Jones. Listeners are given a certain collection of details and then have to flesh out the visual and physical landscape of the world and characters.

"I think that's why I find audio drama closely as satisfying as live theater, because it engages your imagination and it still draws you in and forces you to become a participant of sorts in the experience," Jones said.

But those details, however theatrically limited, are a sound designer's dream. From nuances in the delivery of each word, the inclusion of footsteps or crowd voices, even the construction of a critical, epic sword fight using knives and household materials clanged together.

No spoilers, but Jones needed to convey a lot through non-dialogue sound during that closing sword fight. "So I have to make sure that that storytelling is so solid that you can't miss any of that because if, for any reason, that doesn't work, you have just listened to two hours of Hamlet and you have no idea," Jones said.

The cast of "Hamlet: On the Radio" in a photo collage.
Courtesy of The Old Globe
The cast of "Hamlet: On the Radio" in a photo collage.

'The Readiness Is All'

Edelstein said that even though production of radio dramas is highly labor-intensive, he's hopeful that there's a way the Globe can continue this work for future plays.

"Something like radio allows us to reach an audience that is, frankly, exponentially larger than we can reach in Balboa Park," Edelstein said. "If our mission is to make theater matter to more people, then this is one extraordinarily powerful way to do that."

When asked what his favorite line is from "Hamlet," Edelstein draws from the final act.

"If it be now, it's not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all." — From "Hamlet," Act 5, Scene 2.

"There's a line that's been ricocheting through my head in particular in the last couple of weeks, because Governor Newsom has announced that on June 15, all the pandemic restrictions are going to be lifted and we're all going to be able to start to return to things we remember, full houses full of audiences watching a live performance. And as we put those plans in motion, this one line of Hamlet where he says 'the readiness is all' is on the tip of my tongue."

Tune in to KPBS radio at 89.5FM or at for the first broadcast of "Hamlet: On The Radio" in two parts. Part one is Friday, April 23 at 7 p.m., and part two is Saturday at 7 p.m.

Encore performances will take place Sunday May 2 at 2 p.m. (parts one and two consecutively), Friday June 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. (parts one and two separately), and finally, Sunday June 27 at 2 p.m. (both parts).