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Radio drama is far more adventurous than anything visuals can achieve

Two superb but very different examples of great radio drama were on offer last weekend, including Anthony Burgess’s Oedipus

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

4 March 2017

9:00 AM

At the third UK International Radio Drama Festival held last week in Herne Bay, entitled ‘And Let Us Listen to the Moon’, the entries included an Australian play about Chekhov, the limericks of Edward Lear translated into Serbian, a Czech version of Hamlet in which the palace at Elsinore is transformed into a sporting arena, and a play from Palestine in Arabic about three female political activists. Fifty dramas from 17 countries and in 15 different languages were broadcast at various venues across the Kentish town. Not quite Cannes in May — tea and scones stood in for champagne and caviar — but the festival’s success goes to show that in this fast-moving, visual world there’s still an appetite for a different kind of entertainment, with no images, no distractions, no ad breaks or pauses for snacking.

Thom Luz from Switzerland, one of the award-winners at Herne Bay for his ‘audio piece’, which uses music and words to create an experience rather than a narrative, says that drama on air allows us to go on ‘journeys of the mind’ like no other medium. It’s a form of escapism into other realms, other thought-worlds, that’s far more adventurous than anything that visuals can achieve because of its essential interiority. It’s all in the mind. What we see depends on us.

Over the weekend it was possible to hear two superb but very different examples of the genre. On Sunday night Radio 3 splashed out on the cast for its new production of Anthony Burgess’s version of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, with Christopher Eccleston as a Mancunian-sounding Oedipus (Burgess was brought up in that city), Don Warrington as Creon, Adjoa Andoh as Queen Jocasta and Fiona Shaw as the blind soothsayer Tiresias, relishing every word as she spelt out Oedipus’s fate. Burgess wrote the play in 1972 for a performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis but it ran for only one night, for reasons unknown, and has never been heard in the UK. Perhaps it was because it’s a play about language rather than action. On radio, though, it’s language that counts; too much action can get confusing.


Burgess’s drama is a demanding listen; one and three quarter hours of unrepentant Greek tragedy. But it’s worth savouring every minute because of the way he threads words together, plain and unadorned yet always meaningful (‘the specious glint of a crown’), and the brilliant clarity with which he pours out the story of Oedipus’s rise, by outwitting the Sphinx, and downfall, killing his father and unknowingly sleeping with his mother.

He makes sense, too, of the Chorus, using them to intensify the nightmare. At times it’s like waking from a dream at 3 a.m. and hearing those random, whirling thoughts of guilt, fear, suspicion given rough voice as a wild, discordant hum. (The original production was enhanced by music specially composed by Stanley Silverman and this was revived for Radio 3 by the BBC Philharmonic and Kantos Chamber Choir.)

‘But when knowledge brings no profit to the wise, knowledge is a mode of suffering,’ spits out Tiresias. ‘You have stung me out of silence,’ she tells Oedipus, before warning him that he may not want to hear the truth he has threatened to squeeze out of her. ‘I have already escaped,’ she insists. ‘The truth is my door.’ There’s enough time, enough breathing space in this beautifully paced production (by Polly Thomas and Eloise Whitmore) to think about the meaning of the story, its relevance to our own world with President Assad in Syria, the blood that has been spilled, a land torn apart and decimated, its need for salvation by something beyond humanity.

Earlier on Sunday, Radio 4 Extra rebroadcast Peter Tinniswood’s eccentric comedy Next Time We Might Play Better, first heard in 1997. Tinniswood, in memory of whom a prize is awarded each year for the best original radio play, wrote a string of more than 40 dramas which always played with the genre, taking his characters into unusual situations, moving time back and forth, using the flexibility of radio in ways that still sound original today. Next Time We Might Play Better (directed by Enyd Williams) could not have been more different in tone, theme and content from Burgess’s taut tragedy, yet what both plays shared was a love of language, a taste for words, a gift for imagery. The bombastic Leslie Deedes (played up, but never too much, by the late Graham Crowden) tours the UK with a band of musicians, the Telemachus Trio, so out-of-tune that they’re never allowed to stay in one place for very long.

Time flits from 1942 to 1966 and back again — transitioning smoothly as only radio can — as Deedes sets out in the midst of war to play to the troops. He wanders on to a cruise ship, plays in too many ‘chandelier-infested salons’, does a long stint in the teashop of a department store where the customers appear not to notice how bad the music is as they consume today’s special of buck rarebit with anchovy sauce. Deedes remains unflappable as his band continue to massacre Mozart, Strauss and Lehár. ‘The only words that may liberate us from… blue-bleached extinction,’ he promises. ‘Next time we might play better.’


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