Radio Drama Reviews, Sep 2021
Harry Turnbull

Harry Turnbull's Reviews, 14 Sep 2021.

The Master Builder

BBC Radio 4
Adapted by David Hare from the play by Henrik Ibsen.
Directed by Gary Brown

One of the more challenging Ibsen works to adapt for radio. The text is heavy on the metaphysical with pronounced symbolic referencing and an inconclusive central motif.

Over the years many stage producers and academics have wrestled with the meaning within the text and come up with various suppositions.

The problem is they have been trying to unlock meanings without having the key - and I believe it has been placed in plain sight by Ibsen. The Master Builder is about a man who has been a very successful property developer by exploiting others but whose life has been ravaged by tragedy. He now fears he himself will be usurped by one of his employees. And a shadow from the past comes back to haunt him. The title demonstrates the background to this story which is Norse mythology with a bit of Greek thrown in . When Asgard, the dwelling place of the Gods, was constructed they called in a master builder to create a protective wall to surround it. In Greek mythology the master craftsman Daedelus was asked to build a labyrinth in Crete to contain the Minotaur and was assisted by his son Icarus.

In this story the Master Builder builds his own castles in the air and, like Icarus, flies too high to the sun and becomes burned. The Master Builder is called Halvard Solness, with Sol being the Norwegian word for sun.

This is the framework. Ibsen actually gives us the key to the story by helpfully using character names as pointers. Solness we have just described. His employee and would-be usurper is called Ragnar, a clear reference to Ragnarok, the end of all days when the gods are vanquished and a new order takes over. Ragnar represents the new order.

The second biggest character is Hilde Wangel. Hilde is also the name of a Valkyrie, those maidens who carry fallen heroes to Valhalla. Her second name indicates she is a harbinger or ‘angel of death’. I could go on, and if I was doing a dissertation I probably would. Once you have this key, you can then represent the play either on stage or audio. The themes are many and varied but can be pinned down to death, destruction and renewal.

Sadly, as my theory has not yet been made widely known, no one has yet done this!

I am puzzled by something. This was broadcast on Radio 4 in the old classic serial slot yet it is a dramatic work and would seem far more suited to Drama on 3. Sunday afternoon on Radio 4 will attract more casual listeners and if they do not know Ibsen or indeed this work, many may have struggled.

Ahead of this adaptation, the BBC blurbed about the resonance with the
metoo movement. I imagine this is because Hilde knocks on Solness’ door and asks if he remembers kissing her when she was 12. He doesn’t. She demands he makes good on a promise to make her a princess.

All said, an intriguing choice for an adaption and worth a listen.

The King Must Die

BBC Radio 4
Adapted by Robin Brooks from the Mary Renault novel.
Directed by Fiona McAlpine
Shane Zaza as Theseus

At first I was puzzled, then mystified and finally boiling like a lobster in a pot. You see I assumed a tale about Theseus would feature his clash with the Mintoaur and I happen to have a soft spot for the beast - but hes was nowhere to be heard. Perhaps I should explain the fondness is due to the fact my family name is also enveloped in a bullish legend.

I was a little unbalanced by what I was hearing; it did not seem to fit the myth of Theseus that I remember during those dreamy days of Classics lessons at school.

After a bit of due diligence I discovered this adaptation by Robin Brooks is based on the novel by Mary Renault whose modus operandi, I gather, was to strip away the more fantastical aspects of the mythical stories to reach something more akin to history.

And one of those elements is of course the union between King Minos’ wife Pasiphae and an alluring white bull that produced the Minotaur. If you then relisten with this in mind, it becomes much clearer to figure out what is playing out and who is symbolic of the fabulous beast. It is much more low key than the usual conflicts found within the Greek myth stories and this is reflected in a dreamy soundscape created by the maestro Wilfred Acosta.

United Kingdoms

A series of five afternoon ensemble drama productions on Radio 4

A collection of vignettes from different parts of the UK, conceived as a platform for new writers as the traditional slots are being eaten away by cost-cutting.

Each episode hosts a collection of stories whether drama, comedy or poetry. I’ve dipped in and out of a few.

In the one called Fearing it starts with a mournful tale of a woman grieving the loss of her mother by sitting in bed watching the snow through an open window. The next stop is an enchanting folksong, Welsh I think. After that there was an Irish philosophical poetic ramble about the nature of fear. Then a slice of comedy ending with a woman careering down an A road in her wheelchair. Bring up the rear, Tankerton, which seemed to be a monologue by what I believed is termed a non-binary person.

I’ve read widely, from Aurelius to Schopenhaur, Eric Idle to David Icke but I struggle to understand how an individual can determine their own gender. I thought listening to this might help but it didn’t really, it was just someone cogitating on life as he/she/they see it.

In this episode called Hoping we have a conversation between an Asian mother and daughter set in Yorkshire, the rhythm of their exchanges perfectly mirrored by the Dholi drum in the background.

In Bargeddie a chap with a disability has an imaginary chat with his twin toddlers who are non-disabled and in Colchester; an awful reflection of a vicious knife attack from both the attacker and victim.

The series features 50 new writers and 100 performers. The BBC drama see this as a way of overcoming the obstacles presented by ever diminishing resources for new productions.

A pretty good idea well executed.

The Pivot

BBC Radio 4
By Hugh Costello
Big Fish production directed by Eoin O'Callaghan

The premise seemed appealing enough; a fresh-faced graduate eking out a living as a gardener in 2025 discovers a new Coronavirus is lurking in South East Asia where mummy has been hammering out a deal as the UK trade minister.

Could he persuade her to investigate and possibly jeopardise a lucrative agreement?

Yes. In a bizarre exchange over the dinner table, our hero, coming across like a cross between Ed Miliband at the despatch box and Jeremy Paxman, manages to wring a ‘pledge’ out of mummy to get to the heart of the Covid conundrum at all costs.

It continued in this vein, wavering between drama and spoof like a departed soul wandering ‘twixt this world and the next until the great reveal. Sort of.

Radio 4Extra Reprise

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Featuring Anton Lesser and Don Warrington

The most under-valued of the great Dystopian novels. Some call Zamyatin the Godfather of Dystopia but I think that accolade should actually go to the Godmother, Mary Shelley for The Last Man.

Zamyatin’s book was written in 1921 so as you can imagine it didn’t go down well with Lenin & Co, depicting as it does a totalitarian society. The difference with this one is that instead of just concentrating on the outer and inner worlds of the state, it also involves construction of a spaceship, the Integral, to conquer new worlds. Was Zamyatin saying the Communist state would harbour ambitions further afield in the future?

An excellent production with the expected impressive performances from Lesser and Warrington. Worth checking out if you haven’t heard before.

HT, 14 Sep 21

Thanks, Harry, for these reviews .... ND


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