Alan Bennett contemporary Hamlet 'Denmark Hill' heading for Radio 4

New drama is an adaptation of an old screenplay recently discovered in his archive

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Alan Bennett contemporary Hamlet 'Denmark Hill' heading for Radio 4
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A new Alan Bennett drama is to be broadcast on Radio 4.

Denmark Hill is a contemporary version of Hamlet that transports the action from Denmark's royal castle, Elsinore, to the eponymous south London area. Though Bennett promises to present Shakespeare's great tragedy,  "without all the twiddly bits".

In fact he's gone so far as to recast the Bard's most adapted play as a farce in which Bennett brings his own brand of observational black comedy to a story told through the beady eyes of 15-year-old Harriet, a girl wrestling with an essay on Hamlet and Shakespeare’s view of the family.

He told Mark Lawson on Front Row, in an interview to be broadcast on Wednesday 20 March, that: "I wrote it as a film script and nobody wanted it".

But the story of how the lost play was remembered and tracked down is very Bennett-like in itself.  From being originally sent to BBC television drama, to why it was never developed or produced remains a mystery.  Bennett says when pressed; “Oh…. now you’re asking…can’t remember, probably my fault”.

He didn’t persist in seeking a production in any medium for the play, but he did keep it in a drawer, until it went with all his papers to the Bodleian library for archival storage.  Then, director Tristram Powell - who had previously worked with Bennett on his 1988 BBC1 series of dramatic monologues, Talking Heads - remembered reading the play 32 years ago, and after discussions with Bennett, Powell made an extensive search of the archive and eventually found it.  "It's another play I had forgotten about," Bennett told Front Row. 

The script has now been prepared for performance as a radio drama, and is being recorded in April, directed by Tristram Powell and produced by Marilyn Imrie.

Bennett himself will play the role of the wry narrator in an adaptation where the Hamlet connections are only lightly touched on. As the plays begins, in south London, we meet George who gives Frank his last drink.  In the aftermath of Frank’s death we slowly realise we are being drawn into a strangely familiar story – a suburban Hamlet.  In different guises come Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius and Ophelia and even the travelling players.

The full casting of Denmark Hill is yet to be confirmed with the programe scheduled to be broadcast in 2014.