Photo by Debra DiPaoloWHEN RICHARD FOOS, OWNER-PRESIDENT OF RHINO Records, and Rhino A&R V.P. Gary Stewart conceived the idea of producing a boxed Shakespeare anthology, they needed someone to helm the project. Ideally, it would be someone with a passion for Shakespeare, and the knowledge and expertise to shepherd a large project through the works. Stewart immediately thought of his longtime friend Brenda Johnson-Grau. She had specialized in Shakespeare throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies at UCLA, and she had mentioned to Stewart her interest in doing a book about Shakespeare and pop culture.

Johnson-Grau was delighted with the assignment, and under her guidance, the lavish anthology (Be Thou Now Persuaded: Living in a Shakespearean World) has grown into the largest, most comprehensive and star-studded collection of Shakespearean performances ever assembled. The six-CD set includes more than 200 scenes and speeches, performed by the most distinguished Shakespearean actors of the century, from John Barrymore, Michael Redgrave, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, to Paul Robeson, Richard Burton, Judith Anderson, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Tandy.

Johnson-Grau is an L.A. native who grew up in Whittier and is currently serving as book editor and designer in UCLA's Institute of Archaeology. When compiling the anthology, and finding criteria for choosing the material, it was obvious the collection had to contain the famous Shakespearean set pieces. But she also put in “odd bits that I like myself.” Initially, the anthology was to consist of four CDs, each with its own theme: existence and humanity, love, hot blood (murder, anger and curses), and the supernatural — which would also include death and sleep.

In order to choose the best possible performances, Johnson-Grau listened to every disc and tape she could get her hands on. “I was looking for performers who had excellent diction and vibrant, distinctive voices,” she explains.

“I wanted to prove that when Shakespeare is well-performed, he's not nearly as difficult as people may say. And, wherever possible, I wanted to include a variety of performances. For instance, we have included four different actors playing Hamlet: John Barrymore, Paul Scofield, Richard Burton and Anton Lesser. I thought it would be fascinating to be able to compare modern Hamlets, and their soliloquies — to hear how the actors think about the material, and how they prepared themselves. And we can hear an actress like Vanessa Redgrave in a variety of roles — as Olivia, Rosalind and Ariel.”

Johnson-Grau's hardest task was choosing the selections from the daunting, vast trove of Shakespeare's works. “It was difficult to find a balance, to assemble a series of texts that would both serve as an introduction to Shakespeare and give some idea of his enormous versatility and range. But it was a magnificent opportunity, too, to explore the texts and the many wonderful recordings.”

Wonderful, indeed. The more time I spend with these CDs, the more of a treasure they seem. They include some long-unavailable recordings and almost every Shakespearean performer of note within living memory. Imagine Albert Finney and Claire Bloom as Romeo and Juliet, surprisingly persuasive in two discs devoted entirely to the Bard's most popular romantic tragedy. This compilation is a window to our heritage and, as they say in academia, a contribution to the field.

LA Weekly