Terry Grimley explores highlights of nearly half a century of RSC performances from the British Library Sound Archive...
Theatre is usually thought of as the most ephemeral of art forms, the trade-off for its impermanence being - if we're lucky - the intensity of the shared experience of actors and audience.
But, of course, you can record theatre performances. And in the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company the British Library Sound Archive has now been systematically doing that for nearly half a century.
The resulting archive is a treasure-trove documenting a living tradition of Shakespeare performance (though not, as it is tempting to assume, of performances in Stratford-upon-Avon, most of the recordings having been made in London).
Now, for the first time, a selection of excerpts from these recordings has been made commercially available. Chosen by RSC associate director Gregory Doran, a double CD, The Essential Shakespeare Live, has been jointly produced by the RSC and the British Library.
It was actually released during the autumn, but it is only during this quiet post-Christmas period that I have managed to sit down and dip into it.
Having mentioned the London bias, the discs do begin and end in Stratford.
Arranged in chronological order they take us from Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus at what was then still called the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959 to Judi Dench as The Countess in All's Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre in 2003 (regrettably, productions at The Other Place were never recorded).
It has to be emphasised that these are raw recordings of live performances, complete with stage noises and occasionally bronchial audiences, so don't expect the equivalent of a BBC studio production.
Having said that, the technical roughness of the Olivier Coriolanus still comes as shock - technically poor even by the standards of the time (one imagines the British Library would have used a state-ofthe-art reel-to-reel machine, if only a single microphone), with distortion and a slightly disorientated quality which sounds as if it could be the result of digital clean-up.
But the play, or more precisely its performance, is the thing, and you can hear well enough how Olivier delivered the line "The fires i' the lowest hell fold-in the people!" -possibly unlike anyone before him and I would certainly think unlike anyone since.
From there onwards the quality improves (or possibly the ear adjusts - I suspect a bit of both) and by the time we have got to 1964 and Paul Scofield's very interesting King Lear, it no longer seems an issue.
Incidentally, there is not much here that struck me as particularly dated, though one exception is Alan Howard as Henry V in the "tennis balls" scene from Terry Hands' 1978 production.
The comparison I have in my head for this is Kenneth Branagh (the film, not the RSC production), and Howard sounds impossibly middle-aged by comparison.
One famous production that is not represented here is Peter Brook's 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream (but then that was more visually than aurally innovative) but we do have "To be or not to be..." from David Warner's 1966 Hamlet, an essential ingredient of that year alongside the Beatles' Revolver and England's World Cup triumph as 60s Britain began to swing.
Robert Stephens, an actor of great promise in the 60s whose disappointing later career was redeemed by some major RSC performances in the early 90s, is represented by an all too brief excerpt from his Falstaff in Henry IV.
Moving on through the 70s and 80s we have snippets of Janet Suzman's Cleopatra, Derek Jacobi's Prospero and Antony Sher's Richard III.
Alan Rickman has come to be better known as a film actor, so it's good to have a souvenir of his Jaques doing the "All the world's a stage..." speech from 1986 (another well known film actor, Patrick Stewart, crops up in Julius Caesar from 1973).
This being a sound archive, we have to do without the 1950s hair-driers under which Janet Dale and Lyndsay Duncan played their scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1986 (though there's evocative music and a helpful photograph in the booklet).
But if I had to nominate just one excerpt as the most vivid - and for once the term "bleeding chunk" seems entirely appropriate - it would have to be Brian Cox in Titus Andronicus, exceptionally well recorded in the intimate acoustic of The Pit in 1988.
No wonder people fainted during Deborah Warner's somewhat notorious production of Shakespeare's most bloodthirsty play.
By the time we reach the Swan Theatre in 2003 recording quality has improved imperceptibly but nevertheless dramatically over those 44 years.
Even so, there is nothing here that is less than adequate in allowing us to eavesdrop on long-gone but in some cases legendary performances.
The other pleasure of these discs, of course, is the rare opportunity to hear a varied sequence of scenes which show Shakespeare, as well as his interpreters, on top form.
It has been difficult to believe, listening to them, that there really are people who think he is overrated.
* The Essential Shakespeare - Live Price £15.95. Published by the British Library and Royal Shakespeare Company at £15.95.
It is on sale in bookshops, at the British Library Bookshop and RSC shops, or online at: www.rsc.org.uk