Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by David Hewson and A.J. Hartley, read by Richard Armitage, was one of my favorite books last year and one of my favorite audiobooks of all time. Hewson and Armitage also did a version of Romeo and Juliet, another Audible exclusive audiobook, and a year later I finally had the opportunity to buy and listen to it. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Hamlet. The creators still did a great job, so it was worth it for me, but I ended up a little disappointed. (I know audiobooks aren’t cheap, especially from Audible sometimes. When I review them, it’s so you know what’s worth getting. There’s also an ebook version of this coming out in May if that’s more accessible to you.)
I showed up for Richard Armitage’s reading, and it’s still amazing. He gives each character a presence and a sensitivity to the others. He does a different voice for each one and it never feels forced; as in Hamlet, sometimes it feels more like a dramatization than an audiobook. In purely technical terms, the production is written and designed very well. The text reminds you who people are and what’s happened if you haven’t had a chance to listen for a few days, but it happens in a natural way. The chapters usually hit between five and fifteen minutes, so when you’re doing chores or driving somewhere there’s always an easy stopping place. At eleven hours, it’s substantial but not offputting.
I once again appreciated all the research that went into creating a full historical fiction novel around a play. Hewson is very attentive to place, using real landmarks in Italy that are now associated with the play. When you return to the same parts of the city over and over, it starts to feel like people really live there. It takes you out of the limited square footage of any play and helps give the characters rounded lives and backstories. The problem is that the story just isn’t that compelling to me anymore, and I’m not sure it could sustain that level of attention. The play is brilliant, but it skips over the details to make an emotional point about teenagers in love (and to make a lot of jokes). The realistic telling makes the story seem a bit silly, to be honest. You can fake your own death, but you can’t work out a reasonable escape plan or a fake kidnapping or anything else less likely to end in tragic misunderstanding? Although Hewson changed the ending slightly, it wasn’t enough to be a dramatic twist for me.
I did enjoy Romeo and Juliet’s characterization for the most part though. Romeo is a goof with a hint of steel and it works very well for the progression of the plot. Juliet’s proto-feminism is a bit forced, but not terrible, mostly because Hewson also works in a thorough treatment of toxic masculinity. The patriarchal world of Verona, and the idea of Juliet as a possession, literally poisons and murders everyone it touches. So I liked that element and thought it was a valuable interpretation, even though Juliet herself was a bit too modern to seem realistic. I think if there’d been a way to show her and Romeo trying to make a life together then the dynamic could have worked, she continues to insist she belongs to no one even after she takes up with Romeo and doesn’t take shit from him either, but with limited space for that it reads more like her complaints about Paris were based on her just not liking him rather than the lofty feminist ideals she professed. (Paris turns out to be gross, but the narrative didn’t show that until near the end.) Still, with the restrictions imposed by the narrative, making her more modern is probably the most palatable way to go for a modern audience.
I wouldn’t call this a must-buy, definitely get Hamlet, Prince of Denmark first. But if you liked that one or are a Romeo and Juliet enthusiast, this is well worth a listen and a good think.
CN: Mentions of domestic violence and sexual assault, nothing graphic.