Famous actors do not dress up for the microphone. Here is Rupert Graves going for grunge, and Ciaran Hinds sporting five o'clock shadow, but the generally casual sartorial climate belies the seriousness of purpose that has brought such well-known thesps into the studio. They, with an impressive list of other theatrical luminaries from Joseph Fiennes to Richard Griffiths, Penelope Wilton to Estelle Kohler, Eileen Atkins to John Wood - are here to record nothing less than the complete works of Shakespeare by the year 2000. There are even some acting dynasties involved - Julian Glover, his wife Isla Blair and their son Jamie, Timothy West, Prunella Scales and Sam West, Brian and Alan Cox - and two of the Cusack sisters, Niamh and Sorcha.
Clive Brill, experienced in BBC radio, is directing every script under the watchful eye of American Shakespeare scholar Tom Treadwell, who conceived the project. He and film producer Bill Shepherd have set out to provide modern-sounding versions of all 38 plays (including the disputed Two Gentlemen of Verona - "a global first on tape", says Tom Treadwell) with music specially commissioned from the Trinidadian composer Dominique Le Gendre. Treadwell sits with the text on his knee following every word - one fluff and the line must be done again. Young actors, at home with technology, sometimes simply offer an alternative version without stopping, knowing the whole thing will be expertly edited.
Shakespeare is rarely played uncut in the theatre. This version loses not one word, although an occasional name may be added to let the audience know a silent person is present. Victims of punishment or murder who have nothing to say on the subject may have to do some skilful heavy breathing to commununicate their fate. When Richard II (played by Rupert Graves) dies, his murderers' sinister silence is felt over the airwaves. Edward de Souza even manages to breathe with gratitude when, as the Bishop of Carlisle, he is pardoned by Richard.
Clive Brill says: "The cuts a director makes may determine his angle of interpretation. With no cuts allowed, it is hard to have a consistent line. Shylock is sometimes a bastard - sometimes the Christians are appalling. Decisions have to be based on individual scenes, so you end up with a complex character. Shakespeare wrote inconsistent people full of humanity."
Tom Treadwell admits you miss the visual element, "but I believe it is a virtue - listeners must play the scene out in their heads". This is a particular advantage in the great soliloquies, when, for instance, you are more truly inside Hamlet's mind than is possible amid the distractions of the theatre.
This collection, known as Arkangel Shakespeare, using re-edited Penguin texts, will differ from the Argo recordings of 30 years ago just as acting styles have changed. Rupert Graves, slightly nervous at this, his first attempt at Shakespeare, sounds believably vulnerable, boyish - and modern - as Richard. Ciaran Hinds and Estelle Kohler are as passionate in their playing of Antony and Cleopatra as they would be on stage. Sometimes the pressure of performing with recourse to nothing but words cracks the concentration - Ruperts Graves and Penry-Jones (Aumerle in a baseball cap) simply can't get through:
"How brooks your grace the air After your late tossing on the breaking seas?" and just have to wait for their schoolboy giggles to subside. Clive Brill mentions in a patient aside that the studio is costing pound;250 an hour.
And what a studio. Arkangel has used two, one in Clapham on two levels and a more compact version in Shepherd's Bush, each kitted out with the most up-to-date technology. In that RichardAumerle scene, set outside Harlech Castle, there is a definite outdoor ambience - created by computer. Before the actors speak, someone says: "I can't hear the skyline on the left," and you wonder why you have never listened to the horizon before. Downstairs is acoustically "dead", but with the help of sand on the floor, the added sounds of dripping water or heavy doors closing, can become a cell, a cave or a tomb.
Actors have to be quick and adaptable to enjoy this kind of work, rehearsing as they go, doing perhaps four or five "takes", but on the whole they feel well prepared. "We always have a complete reading on a Sunday," says Julian Glover, who as well as Malvolio in Twelfth Night is Bolingbroke in Richard II and the king in Henry IV, the same person, of course. Bolingbroke is often cast younger, to rival Richard, but playing both parts allows continuity between plays and has the advantage of casting Julian as father to his real-life son, Jamie, Prince Hal. It was, he says, "extraordinary. When Henry dies, it was very physical when we did it on stage. You can't do that in sound, but when it's your own son you can convey some of the same emotional effect."
The first four plays - Twelfth Night, with Niamh Cusack as Viola and Amanda Root as Olivia, Henry V with Jamie Glover, Romeo and Juliet with Joseph Fiennes as Romeo, and A Midsummer Night's Dream with Roy Hudd as Bottom - are available now at pound;8.99 each. The rest will be released in groups of four every three months until spring 2000.