From Scottish to Anglo-Saxon

31st October 1997 at 00:00
THE POET SPEAKS. Argo Pounds 7.99.


VANITY FAIR. Naxos Pounds 13.19.

HAMLET. Naxos Pounds 14.99.

ROMEO AND JULIET. Naxos Pounds 12.99.

BEOWULF Pavilion Records, Sparrows Green, Wadhurst, East Sussex TN5 6SJ. Pounds 25.90. inc pp.

Listening to poets read their own works always adds interest; do they sound the way you expect them to, which words do they emphasise and which do they skip over? The Poet Speaks has 24 authors covering the full range of the 20th century, and all except one of the poems is read by the poets themselves.

An avuncular T S Eliot gives us a selection from his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Hugh MacDiarmid reads in his rich Scottish accent, and Sylvia Plath's clipped New England tones chill the blood with the disturbing Daddy and Lady Lazarus. Many of the poets, such as Roger McGough and Seamus Heaney, are still very much alive and writing, and some of them discuss aspects of their work as well as reading it (although this is not mentioned in the accompanying notes).

The advantage of the Listen and Read series by Dover is that each cassette has a paperback book with it. Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems, for example, has 65 minutes of spoken word plus the full text of all the poems from that edition of her work. The series also includes short stories by James Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe. Charles Keating's soft, expressive Irish accent makes compulsive listening to the three tales from Dubliners, with the rest in the accompanying paperback. Earl Hammond throws himself fully into the gruesome horror of Poe's gothic stories; he reads three of the shorter ones (not the best known) while the book contains more of Poe's classic works such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Fall of the House of Usher. This is a "no frills" series - it looks cheaply produced, and the title suggests a primary school reading scheme, but the readers are excellent. William Thackeray's huge novel, Vanity Fair, takes up over six-and-a-half hours of tape time, even in abridged form, but Jane Lapotaire's masterly performance makes you wish it were even longer. This excellent reading takes you back to an age when reading aloud was the most important form of family entertainment, and the music that accompanies it (mainly Schubert) adds to the period atmosphere.

Hamlet - unabridged - is four hours of superb entertainment. The full cast recording includes a fiery Laertes in Jamie Glover, a sinister Edward de Souza as Claudius and Anton Lessor as the complex, tortured Hamlet. Romeo and Juliet, from the same Naxos stable, features Michael Sheen as an authoritative Romeo (he also directs) and Kate Beckinsale is a reflective Juliet. Fiona Shaw is the nurse - garrulous, interfering, totally convincing. Both these versions are on CD, and scene-by-scene synopses in the notes make it easy to pick out and re-play particular speeches - a very useful adjunct for those studying the plays.

Students of Anglo-Saxon will no doubt be fascinated to hear Trevor Eaton, former lecturer and professional performer of Chaucerian verse, declaiming the epic Beowulf in its original West Saxon dialect. Written during the sixth century, this is two hours' worth of brutality, battles, feuds and impossible heroism. Anglo-Saxon is nothing like present-day English; for those unschooled in the complexities of the language, the best thing to do is to buy a good translation, settle down in the mead-hall with your hearth-companions and just let the alliteration roll over you.

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