Plantagenets, Rattigan’s Flare Path and Letter to My Body: Radio and audio review 10th June 2011
The Second Series of Mike Walker’s Plantagenets in the Sunday Classic Serial (BBC Radio Four) starts with the sound of England pissing on Scotland followed by William Wallace replacing it with the sound of dripping blood. After his wife is strung up, the dripping turns to the sound of Anglo-haemoglobin hosing.
This was radio drama wonderfully cast and directed. Ellie Kendrick gave her performance of Margaret a beauty and dignity that grew in strength and power from the hesitant and plaintive exhortation of ‘monsieur, monsieur’ on her wedding night to the later gutteral ululation of a warrior King’s consort.
Philip Jackson thrived and roared as Edward Longshanks. He had some marvellous lines. About his son- “weathercocks do not make good kings,” and of his most senior cleric: “Archbishop you do the praying and I’ll do the fighting.” Followed by the quip from a beancounting member of the King’s Council: “and who will do the paying your majesty?”
Unlike Edward the First’s deracination into a sociopathic bully in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, this Longshanks in script and performance had tenderness, compassion as well as ruthlessness.
Somewhat amusingly this production presents William Wallace as the merciless psychopath, whose inner soul has been consumed by hatred and the blind rage for revenge.
Anything audio-dramatic with a Mike Walker writing credit offers an expectation of high quality story-telling and there is no reason for the listener to be disappointed. He is so regular a writer of BBC radio drama, I suspect he now lives at Broadcasting House. Long may he be there as our twenty first century Shakespeare of sound writing.
These productions are apparently studio based and indeed the BBC synopsis pages provide fascinating photographs of direction and performance in what appear to be Auntie’s new audio drama recording studios in the refurbished Broadcasting House or might they be from the upside down Art Nouveau cake of BBC Maida Vale?
Long draping curtains, towering acoustic screens; they might have been recording in Westminster Hall or even the Cathedral across the road where Longshanks lies with his role model, Edward the Confessor.
Edward II, known as “Ned” is played delightfully by Sam Troughton. And the agony of the fractious relationship between father and son reaches its pain and climax with the exchange:
“Ned: You never loved me.
Edward I: Love is for women and babies. Now go. Go!”
Their ages are decades apart but Walker writes the marriage between Margaret and Longshanks as an alliance of love and intelligence:
Edward Longshanks: Ah, Madam. War. War is better than hunting.
Margaret: Is war better than love?
Edward Longshanks: Aren’t they the same?
Margaret: One makes babies and the other makes corpses.”
When Margaret counsels her husband to let his weathercock son back into the court, he laments that: “Weakness, Margaret is a quality like tallness. It doesn’t learn and it doesn’t change.”
Edward is to die on yet another campaign to quell the rebellious Scots. Her last words to him are: “After you, there are no other men, my Lord.”
And Walker writes for Margaret the wonderful line: “They bring him home, my great and terrible King…”
In Edward II – The Greatest Traitor, the narrative voice shifts to that of Sir Roger Mortimer, played with a softly lilting Welsh accent by Trystan Gravelle.
In Edward the First Old Soldiers, the narrative point of view belonged to Longshanks’ young Queen Margaret. And the second Plantagenet episode is equally dominated by the powerful presence of Edward the Second’s Queen Isabella who has to deal with the folly of her husband’s ego and the mischief of his kingsmen’s treacheries.
Hattie Morahan gives the role of Isabella a voice of cunning and passion. She becomes the “She-Wolf of France” in the cascading circumstances of scheming men who are in turn weak, ruthless and pathetic.
Sam Troughton’s characterisation neither ridicules nor diminishes the tragedy of Edward the Second’s story. The historian John Harvey wrote in 1948 how in the end Edward the Second was:
“hurried back to his clammy dungeon where he was soon afterwards murdered with monstrous torments. The date of his death was given out as 22 September, a day which deserves commemoration for the suffering borne by a pathetic and courageous man, a royal martyr even if he were no saint.”
This masterful radio production captures all of the ambiguities, paradoxes and cruelties in a truly wretched legend of medieval English history largely drawn from Holinshed’s Chronicles.
It might be argued that the sound of cutting flesh and squirting blood was overdone a little. The language of the script left little to the imagination, but was often redeemed by the quality of Walker’s playwriting when, for example, Mortimer’s defiant cheek in the face of hearing the menu of hanging, drawing and quartering was signed off with a delightful riposte.
It is all well and good Mortimer being the hero and crying out:
“A man dies once in this world but a coward dies a dozen times a day!” I somehow think that the Despenser’s last words rue the day: “You know…I think I’ll have them pull out your tongue before they cut off your cod.”
Mortimer is rescued and escapes because Isabella loves him more and together they are depicted as the forces that will depose and destroy the mercurial and confused king at Berkeley Castle.
But the adulterer and the betrayer will have their judgement day when the teenage Edward III, made king on his father’s involuntary abdication, never forgets their failure to respect his demand that no harm was to come to his father.
Ominously the focus of narration shifts from Mortimer to that of the young king and then to Isabella, the Queen Mother, who though spared the gruesome execution of her lover Mortimer, is depowered and banished to dishonourable retirement.
All credit to the BBC for avoiding any dramatic representation of the detail of Edward the Second’s demise. It served no dramatic purpose. It was enough that Mortimer and Isabella had no intention of keeping the promise they had made to their victim’s fourteen year old son.
Drama on Three (BBC Radio Three) Sunday 5th June provided Flare Path and the Saturday Play (BBC Radio Four) on 11th June offers The Browning Version. The latter, along with the Winslow Boy define Rattigan’s significance as the upper middle class voice of English dramatic literature of the twentieth century.
He did not deserve the debunking and vitriol of Kenneth Tynan that plunged his reputation into the shadows with the onset of kitchen sink and angry young men plays.
Flare Path by Catherine Bailey Productions (a distinguished indy provider of audio drama to BBC networks) was my first introduction to Rattigan’s Second World War play arising out of his experiences as a tail gunner in coastal bomber command. There’s been a very successful West End revival directed by Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket starring Sienna Miller.
The radio production, though, was directed by Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Court, Jeremy Herrin. And what a cast! Rupert Penry Jones, Ruth Wilson, Rory Kinnear, Monica Dolan, Una Stubbs, Tom Goodman-Hill, Justin Salinger, Julian Wadham, David Hartley, and Kelly Shirley.
Rattigan’s spirit must have been purring. Yes, of course, we are dealing with a play written for its cultural context, at a time when all scripts were dribbled over by the Lord Chamberlain, there was the ever present burden of patriotic consensus, and before the gritty realism and ironies of Catch 22 and Oh What A Lovely War.
But these magnificent actors conjured all of the subtextual and understated pain, suffering and inward turmoil of life and death indignities the generation of that time experienced.
No mean feat when you only have the voice. At least on the stage you can physically project the human understatement and tableau the unspoken emphasis behind euphemism and verbal irony with deft movements of the body and face.
Flare Path is all about dislocated love and takes place in a hotel within hearing distance and with a fine view of an RAF bomber base in Lincolnshire in 1942; a dreadful, dreadful year. Young people are being heroes and heroines in uniform, but there is something unfair, unlucky and equally vulnerable about those who are a little too old to be flying to Germany and back to drop bombs.
In the case of Peter Kyle all he has is his fading par excellence as a famous actor at the age of thirty nine. About to be jettisoned by his film company can he persuade the love of his life Patricia Graham to leave her husband Teddy whose nerves are flailing as a war-time pilot and whose emotional needs are apparently greater.
All around them are couples whose more organised, simple, and honest love lives are being ripped asunder by death, fear and sacrifice.
Rupert Penry Jones as Peter Kyle and Ruth Wilson as Patricia Graham play the ironies of their tragic relationship with brilliance. At the end of ninety minutes Peter departs the hotel their hearts eaten away with regret, lies, forlonging and the unsaid.
Rory Kinnear’s Teddy Graham has the terrified eyes of a worn out pilot officer who will probably not return from his next mission. Of course in radio you never see them, but Rory made sure you could hear them.
Jeremy Herrin directed his cast so well I thought I was hearing a company performing the play after a run of several months in the West End; not a day or two of rehearsal and running off the script that is usually the way of radio drama.
Una Stubbs as Mrs Oakes was an absolute treasure. As Kyle settles up his bill she played her final lines with metaphorical crackle:
“Mrs Oakes: You’ll notice I haven’t charged you for the breakfast after all.
Kyle: Yes, I see. Thank you very much. SOUND OF NOTES BEING COUNTED.
That should cover it.
Mrs Oakes: By the way, I trust you left the Wing Commander’s things just as they were?
Kyle: Yes. I was very careful. [...]
Mrs Oakes: You could have had number two for tonight Mr Kyle. I’m sorry you’re leaving so soon.
Kyle: I’m afraid…I have no choice.
Mrs Oakes: Goodbye. And thank you.
Kyle: Thank you.
Patricia Graham: Goodbye Mr Kyle.
Kyle: Goodbye…Mrs Graham.”
It struck me that the actors in Rattigan’s play, Patricia and Peter, are continually insulted, trivialised, diminished, patronised and challenged. Even after Peter translates from French under protest the moving last letter written by the Polish flyer to his English wife, he has to deny that he has made up the last lines expressing love and everlasting commitment in the afterlife.
How cruel that his sincerity should be doubted in these circumstances.
God bless the British. When truly broken-hearted, defeated, and FUBAR as the Americans put it, they always manage to say thank you and sorry.
You may have missed it, but there is still a chance to hear one of the most remarkable and moving radio essays written and broadcast on BBC Radio Three in recent years.
‘A Letter to my Body’ is a series of essays in which five thinkers, artists and writers ask themselves how they relate to their own bodies.
From the age of eight Sarah was given ongoing medical treatment for a disorder of sexual development – but she only learned the real nature of her diagnosis at the age of twenty-five when a gynaecologist finally revealed the truth: that she is an intersex woman. She has XY chromosomes. She had never questioned her sex and had lived her life as a woman. Doctors had even shielded her parents from the truth about her gender. The shock of the revelation led Sarah on a path of depression and addiction which nearly killed her. However she has gradually rebuilt her health and her self esteem.
This was fine writing and radio literature at its very best. With no sense of self-pity Sarah can be heard making peace with her body and questioning society’s polarised expectations of gender. I think the story and argument should be heard and developed at greater length elsewhere, should the author be willing and a publisher sensible enough to realise the potential.
BBC Radio Four Extra is continuing the complete rerun of the Smiley season of novel dramatisations and there is also a welcome repeat of a modern adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a suitably faithful characterisation of the Creature.
The next Drama on Three on Sunday 12th June is Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money- a dramatic satire on the financial excesses and corporate venality that followed the 1986 Big Bang and the first of three plays in Radio 3’s “Money Talks” season. I do hope this is not going to be an artistic kicking of anything to do with banking and business. We should remember the words of Andy Warhol: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” and somebody should write a play about that.
Audio of this review by Tim Crook