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Radio Plays, 2024

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Harry Turnbull's Reviews

12 May 2024

IS MAMET'S BATTLE OF THE SEXES ON THE RIGHT WAVELENGTH?

Oleanna
Broadcast on BBC Radio 3
18th February 2024

An Audio Drama North production

Can a stage play truly be transplanted into the heads of a purely listening audience without major surgery?

David Mametís vicious two-hander Oleanna provokes that question after being converted into a theatre of the mind for BBC Radio 3.

Stage adaptations are invariably underpinned by visual cues such as vexatious expression, the decoding of body language and the notion that clothing can evoke emotions in others.

But this first-ever radio adaptation has none of these characteristics to draw upon, and indeed goes further, removing classic music and sound effects so often associated with the aural medium.

This extraordinary departure from convention leaves vocal inflexion, tonality and language to drive sensory perception.

Mametís university campus conflict pits older white male academic John against Bolshy young student Carol.

The pair clash in a battle of postmodern feminism reflective of the 1980s, a period just prior to the playwrightís authorship of this work.

Mark Bonner and Cecilia Appiah perform the two parts in American accents although there seems no clear reason why that should be the case. The listener is confronted with no more than these two voices and a noiseless background. All that is added is John's office phone ringtone and some fluting music to delineate the three acts. There are no radio-drama 'visual clues' in the script.

So, we can hear how the actors sound but how do they look? Is the professor in a woolly jumper and pipe or in a smart shirt and tie? Is he bald or dark and tall? Is she in jeans or a mini skirt, pigtailed or behatted? Our mind deciphers and concludes based on our own experiences, and without transparent directions we are presented with the ultimate test of the imagination, creating a world in our mindís eye.

This simplifies matters, focusing entirely on the dialogue between the pair which starts as a chat about grades before eventually flaring into a struggle of power and gender dynamics.

On hearing the increasingly urgent exchanges I wondered whether modern audiences would be as outraged as those in 1992 appeared to be. Women were up in arms at Carolís diminution as a freethinking individual whilst men howled at the idea an accusation without trial was enough to convict. Of course so-called cancel culture makes that latter notion almost de rigueur these days.

Even so, this stripped-down cadaver of a production exudes a growing sense of brooding disquiet as it becomes clear it is coming to life in the manner of Frankenstein's monster.

The story opens in the professorís office where Carol has arrived to discuss a poor grade but he is involved in a loud phone conversation about a house purchase. The contrast is immediate and jarring to us, for no one on either side of the student-tutor divide these days would find a personal phone call taking precedence over a discussion of coursework.

At various stages the professor is interrupted but declines to take the old landline phone off the hook. The scene has been set - we infer his business is very important.

As the exchanges unfold we start to understand what is happening but how does it differ to what might happen now?

Having just finished university I can appreciate that on one hand we have the professor, all white privilege and worrying about saying the wrong thing and on the other the empowered student. I recall what seemed an amusing exchange when a student declared in class that he/she/they was thinking of changing gender. The lecturer looked troubled as if encountering a plumbing problem he had no idea how to fix.

Some academics may navigate the world through carefully constructed language that ensures the sesquipedalian is king, until confronted with their own linguistic frailties.

Carol begins hesitant and unsure but evolves, verbally unfurling a feminist banner as she shifts from dark to light, a phantasmagorical figure intent on eclipsing the symbol of privilege and superiority that hampers her progress.

Emboldened by her initial complaint about inappropriate behaviour being upheld she goes further, claiming a charge of rape could be brought against the professor who pressed against her while bundling her out of his office. The twin protagonists Bonner and Appiah pair, out of his office but offering a sop, suggesting certain books be withdrawn including his own.

Towards the denouement the professor concedes, realising his Tenure and secure future is at risk.

However the idea of his book being removed sparks a descent into a violently verbal pas de deux.



HARRY TURNBULL'S RADIO REVIEWS

20 Feb 2024



OLEANNA
A BBC Radio Drama North production
Directed by Gary Brown

Recently I was asked if I was a member of a disadvantaged or under-represented group when applying to a writing development fund and when I said yes Iím an older white male (OWM) I was greeted with expressions of repugnance and disbelief (They didnít get it and I didnít get the grant).

Maybe I am too early in the cycle that will surely result in the eventual annexation of OWMs from positions of power and influence. I donít resent this at all, it is only fair after such a lengthy period of dominance.

David Mametís Oleanna pressed the buttons of equality and privilege thirty years ago when the hip phrases were not Me Too and Trigger Warnings but Political Correctness and Sexism.

The same themes resonate however now but there appeared to be a shock value in 1992. Back in the aforementioned good old days audiences were so outraged many took sides and there were even reports of fisticuffs. All I can reflect on is that some people must have been easily fired up then because this miscommunication of modern manners as presented today didn't leave me wanting to punch the wall.

It's a simple premise, a conversation between an older male lecturer and a younger female student turns sour leading to accusations of inappropriate behaviour.

Mark Bonner plays the professor John and Cecilia Appiah the student Carol, both in convincing American accents although Iím not sure why they have been adopted.

This is the first time Oleanna has been adapted for radio but it allows the words to speak for themselves as there are no sound effects so it is presented pretty much as it might be on stage. Of course there is a chasm of difference between the two mediums as listeners donít have the opportunity to gauge expressions, compute body language or decipher clothing, instead it is vocal inflexion, tonality and levels of sound that drive sensory perception.

On the one hand we have the professor, all white privilege and worrying about a new house purchase and on the other the disempowered student who raises accusations focusing on language and physical inappropriateness.

Listening to the engagement, initially hesitant and inarticulate from Carol, you get a sense of how words can become weaponised. The over-riding impression is that you, the listener, are the jury and can decide who you feel is right or wrong. Your conclusion may well define your world view.



OIL ON WATER
Drama on 4
Adapted by Jeremy Front
Directed by Tracey Neale

In the book by Helon Habila one of the two journalists who feature in this story of the Niger delta in Africa reflects that 'the story is not always the final goal.'

A peculiar comment given that every news editor I ever had preached exactly the opposite and would sling a barrage of expletives your way if you didnít bring home the story (it was the the days before Wokery and Snowflakes).

So Habila often uses the journalist not just as observer and recorder but as moral delineater. A part of Nigeria ravaged in so many different way by oil extraction is the backdrop to this tale of a grizzled reporter and his junior sidekick on the trail of a kidnapped Englishwoman.

The landscape, communities and wildlife have been pillaged while rebel groups vie for power.

But this adaptation doesnít simply reflect the harsh reality but rather meanders in a thoughtful way as the newsmen Zaq and Rufus take a trip down river in a reflective Conradesque-style journey. I wondered whether this more philosophical approach to an action led story had missed the point, so I put it to the book author Professor Habila of George Mason University:

ĎYou are right because I think they could have done more to emphasize the environmental themes of the book. But you are wrong because you really cannot separate theme from content that easily: when the Major pours petrol on the heads of Michael and Tamuno, for instance, it says a lot about the Niger Delta and the environment. The fact of the kidnapping itself speaks volumes about the Niger Delta crisis.

ĎCould they have done more? Yes. But, I think they did a magnificent job given the limited resources they had to work with.í The veteran Zaq is played by Cyril Nri, his deep bass voice resonating with the soundscape while Idris Debrand is the younger Rufus whose youthful idealism is quickly tested.



THE NEW SUGAR
Directed by Gaynor Macfarlane for BBC Drama Scotland
Written by Ben Tagoe

The title of this work references the possibility of sugar plantations in the Caribbean being usurped by cannabis cultivation.

Sadly this particular aural dish is more sour than sweet and fails to convey a true picture of societal changes in the West Indies. The story contends that mass cultivation of medicinal hemp by corporations is a form of new Colonialism and disenfranchising the Rasta ganja growers.

Yorkshire lass Alexandra Mardell is the idealist daughter of a Windrush deportee who snags a job with a U.S corporation to market the product only to quit on principle.

It may have had more resonance if the full story had been told; that the Barbadian government has strived to ensure local businesses are in the supply chain and that pot has essentially been decriminalised to prevent Rastas being unfairly treated.

In addition they could have explored the current sugar industry, the drop in foreign exports hitting GDP and the stratospheric explosion of diabetes due to terrible diets rather than throwing out the predictable Colonial tropes.

The sub-plot about Windrush is clunky, doesn't fit the overarching narrative and appears to be just another lazy Brit - bashing episode. Or maybe that should be English bashing as this is a Drama Scotland production.



OUR MAN IN HAVANA
Drama on 4
Directed by Tracey Neale

Some adaptations face an uphill struggle when an iconic screen version is branded into the collective consciousness. Well, certainly in the case of those of us of more advanced years.

Probably less applicable to the younger audience for whom a reference to Noel Coward and Alec Guiness may be irrelevant. Graham Greene wrote this Cold War satire set in Cuba after experiencing some of the absurdities of the intelligence services at first hand.

In this recreation Rory Kinnear is Wormwold, a vacuum cleaner salesman persuaded to spy for MI6 by the prospect of money rather than for Queen and country.

It is the old story of an ordinary man catapulted into extraordinary circumstances but finding himself only able to deliver fantasies to satisfy his spymasters.

The atmosphere of 1950s Havana is conjured up by Latina sounds and the menacing tones of the police chief played by Michael Bertenshaw. There is a contemporary dissonance in the shape of his pursuit of Wormwood's school age daughter but of course at the time such matters were not considered unethical.

Miles Jupp hops in and out as the handler Hawthorne who is duped into believing sketches of a super duper new vacuum machine are actually a nuclear installation.

Naturally the soundtrack reverberates with Buena Vista Social Club type vibes.



THE MEDICI
A BBC Audio Wales production
Director John Norton

Mike Walker conjures up another audio slice of history storytelling about a ruling dynasty. What I like about these serials is the informative element as well as the entertainment.

In the past he has conjured all sorts of dynastic delights including series about the Plantaganets, the Stuarts and the Habsburgs. The first of the six episodes was actually written by Catherine Johnson and features the dark tale of Alessandro, the Black Prince of Florence.

This is the second series featuring the influential banking family who flourished in Renaissance Florence and who were at the epicentre of political power, art and moneymaking.

Although each episode is being broadcast on Sunday afternoon all are already available on BBC Sounds.



AMBRIDGE EXTRA
I occasionally take a dip into the frothy waters of social media to examine current thinking on various topics including whatís happening in Borsetshire.

I donít think Iíve ever seen so much vitriol and contempt for current storylines. Of course there was a time when there were platforms such as Archers Addicts that were either officially endorsed or very much part of the feedback loop but the BBC has closed the door on audience engagement.

The danger of sometimes relying on social media to keep up with storylines is the element of exaggeration you encounter but even so developments are somewhat unexpectedÖÖ.Pip Archer turning lesbian, the Horrorbin kids virtuous and academic, sadistic Rob Titchener dead but his legacy very much alive. Some things never change though, the Grundys are still getting a kicking.


@Turnbullissimo



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