Theatre: Take it again, Sir John

Sir John Gielgud is playing Gower in `Pericles' for a new collection of Shakespeare on tape. Robert Butler eavesdropped on rehearsals with the greatest Shakespearian of our time
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THE DIRECTOR needs to go back and do it again. In the control room he speaks, via the talkback system, to the actor in a sealed-off recording area known as the "dead room".

"We're saying Tarsus," says the director, "not Tharsus."

"Tharsus?"

"Not Tharsus!"

The actor is slightly confused. "Which should I say?"

"No `h'."

"No `h'. Uh-huh."

Instructions are brisk. The director has five days to rehearse and record each play. He is doing 38 plays over three years: the complete Shakespeare canon, including The Two Noble Kinsmen. The instructions are also uncharacteristically polite. The director is correcting the world's most distinguished Shakespearean actor.

Sir John Gielgud marks the changes on his carefully annotated sheet. He has clearly done his homework. There is no literary chat about rival interpretations. The director wisely thinks it inappropriate. The most he says to Gielgud before Gielgud tackles each new speech is: "Green light coming, Sir John."

The 94-year-old actor sits at a round table with one microphone, a jug of water, and a white triangular script- holder on which he rests his pages. He has a ring on his fingers, a cravat, glasses, and a neat white moustache. His suit is an immaculate grey serge. He looks like a elegant old turtle. On his left, the green light comes on.

"Here have you seen a mighty King ... " The elderly throaty voice is startlingly mellifluous, with a bass rumble that seizes a vowel in "sung" or "rimes" or "sin", and runs with it, often taking it up to a higher register. With each retake, the corrections are taken on board. His professionalism is unfaultable. Second time round, Tharsus, naturally, loses its "h".

Gielgud plays Gower, the 14th-century poet, who acts as the Chorus in Pericles. He has eight substantial soliloquies. "Are you happy to have a full go?" asks the director as Gielgud approaches a 52-line speech. "If you like," replies Gielgud. Each time he speaks, four people in the control room stop watching him on the TV monitor and listen hard.

One is the director Clive Brill, a former BBC radio man who used to direct The Archers. One is the producer, Tom Treadwell, an American academic, who follows the text with a scholar's ear and eye. One is the production co-ordinator, Charlotte Harvey, who marks any fluff or hesitation in her extensively numbered script. And one is the sound engineer, Giles Littlefield. He has already "rolled off the bass" to give Gielgud a drier, more natural sound. Otherwise, that close to the mike, Gielgud might sound like a DJ taking night calls. He's also listening for a distant door slamming or car stereo going by, or anything odd, like the tongue hitting the teeth. But Gielgud is impressive. He speaks across the mike: that is, either up or below or to one side. He never, as they say, "pops the mike" with his plosives.

Each speech involves several retakes. Gielgud's swivel chair squeaked. The pages rustled. He bumped the microphone. He missed the "run-on" in the second line. It's "unearned", with an accent on the "-ed". Iwis is "ee-wis", not "eye-wis". It's "bade", not "bad". He said "the king" rather than "this king". Perhaps he could pause more before the final couplet. Halfway through the recording, Clive Brill asks Sir John if he would like to break for lunch. "No, let's go on," says Gielgud. "Be nice to finish."

In a little over an hour the job is done. Like every other actor taking part in the Arkangel recordings, Gielgud will be paid pounds 150 for his day's work. With 600 roles on offer, negotiating individual contracts is out of the question. Actors are keen to do it anyway. They get to play parts they might not otherwise be offered.

Even Gielgud was keen to do more. He asked the co-producer Bill Shepherd about doing the Chorus in Henry V. Shepherd had to tell him that Brian Cox had already done it. Oh, said Gielgud, well, he's very good.

Henry V was one of the first batch to be released this summer. Four more come out this month, then another four before Christmas. By the end of the year 2000, all the plays will be available. The audio market is predominantly a cassette market; the CDs will come later. When the CDs arrive, they will have tracking points, and students will be ablt to skip the boring bits.

Each play has an initial run of 3,000, and will be distributed by Penguin. Arkangel's other big audio project this year, 25 of Roald Dahl children's stories, will be launched with Quentin Blake illustrations, dump-bins and counter-packs. Shakespeare doesn't merit any of this: the one jazzy touch is that his portrait will get the Andy Warhol treatment. As more tapes are released, Penguin will offer gift sets, and promote "the idea of collectability". Each play costs pounds 40,000 to produce. Bill Shepherd, who produced the film Mrs Dalloway, which had a screenplay by his wife, Eileen Atkins, reckons these recordings will have a shelf-life of 10 or 20 years.

The new tapes place the accent on naturalism, freer verse speaking and ambient sound effects. At times, with bees buzzing, birds twittering and characters reacting while other characters are speaking, it sounds a little like Shakespeare goes to Ambridge. Even Gielgud will get a musical accompaniment. The Arkangel series aims to be less declamatory, less stagey than the exacting 1972 Argo series, produced by the Cambridge don George Rylands with the Marlowe Dramatic Society and the British Council. Though purists might still prefer the Argo.

They are still doing it straight, however. "Doing it wacky," says Shepherd, "is just showing off. You think, excuse me, the words actually look quite good here." They're recording them fast, using the same director and composer, Dominique Le Gendre, and many of the same actors. The idea is to create a consistent style. "How long do you need if you're a good actor?" says Brill. "I would argue that four takes is enough."

There are many distinguished actors taking part: Eileen Atkins, Brian Cox, John Wood, Julian Glover, Bill Nighy, Roger Allam, Simon Russell Beale, Ciaran Hinds and Richard Griffiths. The producers have also tried to include young actors, with whom the schools and student audience can identify. That is, actors they might know from TV and film: Adrian Lester, Joseph Fiennes and Samuel West. A whole lifetime separates them from Sir John Gielgud.

After he has finished the recording, Gielgud joins the production team and members of the Measure for Measure cast for lunch. They are recording that afternoon. Everyone eats takeaway pizzas and sandwiches. A young actor asks Gielgud if he'd ever played King Lear. "Three times," Gielgud replies. "First in 1930." Several of us glance round the table. No one else in the room was alive in 1930.

Experience hasn't made him complacent. After an hour in the recording studio, Gielgud reached the final line of the epilogue: "Here our play has ending." Brill hurried in to the dead room, thanked Gielgud profusely and asked him to sign his copy of the play. "I hope it made sense," said Gielgud. Brill assured him that it was absolutely marvellous. "Are you sure? I'd be very glad to do any of it again."

The Arkangel Shakespeare tapes are distributed by Penguin at pounds 8.99 each. `Henry V', `Romeo and Juliet', `A Midsummer Night's Dream' and `Twelfth Night' are out now; 'All's Well That Ends Well', `King John', `Macbeth' and `The Merchant of Venice' are released on 27 August.

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