Click here to hear the BBC’s Jeremy Howe explain radio drama’s place in the British theater scene.
If you are an avid theatergoer with a rigorous evening regimen who squeezes in as many matinees as possible, it’s somehow the plays you miss that linger. My biggest frustration this trip was that Shakespeare’s Globe, the reconstructed Elizabethan theater next to the Tate Modern, hadn’t yet started its season, which runs between May and October. I’ve never seen a play there, since I rarely visit Britain in the summertime, but I’ve tortured myself by reading about the re-creation of Shakespeare’s playhouse and the productions that use “original practices” or Shakespearean pronunciation. Still, the calendar was against me.
Or perhaps not. Since I was in town over Shakespeare’s birthday weekend, I could join a “sonnet walk”—whatever that was—organized by the Globe. At the appointed hour, I showed up at Westminster Abbey, where I was handed a white rose “so the sonneteers can identify you” and a sheet of cryptic directions like those for a scavenger hunt. After a glimpse of the monument to Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner for inspiration, I was assigned to a group of seven (accompanied by a very sweet dog named Zadie) and let loose on the streets of London.
I felt ridiculous. Here I was with a bunch of strangers, a flower, and a page of poncey instructions. (“As you pass a bronze lover, keep your spirits up and support the mourning lady, for you never know when Sweet Love will be Remember’d.”) But it was too late for a refund.
As we shambled down the Victoria Embankment, a bum on a bench started to harangue us for money. Suddenly, his requests for spare change segued into Sonnet 91, “Some glory in their birth, some in their skill/ … Thy love is better than high birth to me/ Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost.” The transformation was incredible—menacing to captivating in two lines. We carried on—a more cohesive group by now—and as we picked our way through the tourists in Whitehall Gardens, a blind man stumbled and fell. Naturally, we ran over to pick him up, only for him to launch into a sonnet. And so it went, through winding little roads, past ancient pubs and Middle Temple Hall, all the while being surprised by 12 stealth sonneteers posing as: a needy guy on crutches (Sonnet 89, “Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt”); more street people; a woman talking to a cheating lover on her cell phone; workmen; lost tourists seeking directions; and, as we grew increasingly suspicious of everyone we saw, a guy in a chicken suit. After two hours, we found ourselves at the Globe, where we placed our roses on the stage in a hokey sign of respect to the bard.
It was fantastic! Some of the sonneteers were clearly students, not entirely confident in their recitation. But the really gifted actors needed just a word or two to connect with intensity. The supposed difficulties of “understanding” poetry or Shakespearean language disappeared as soon as they started to speak. And because we never knew where the next sonnet was coming from, we connected, too—actually looking into the faces of the people we passed and making eye contact with homeless people. After all, they might have gone to drama school.
But if theatergoing or sonnet walks are too tiring (or interactive) for you, stay home and let the drama come to you. Radio 4, the BBC’s main spoken-word network, pumps out about 15 hours of drama every week—a 45-minute play every weekday, hourlong plays every Friday and Saturday, serial dramas and book serializations, and The Archers, a daily soap opera that has been on the air since 1950.
The week that I listened to The Afternoon Play, I was astonished by the big-name actors who participated—Brian Cox, Patricia Routledge, Tom Courtenay, to name just a few. What were these big stars doing on the wireless? “I think a lot of actors are really pleased to do radio,” Jeremy Howe, Radio 4’s commissioning editor for drama, told me when we met at Broadcasting House. “It’s not like filming, which takes a long time and is a very tense-making process. Filming is very exposing, as is being on the stage. You rehearse a stage play for five weeks or so, and then you do it night in and night out—it’s a big commitment.” On the other hand, he noted, “Radio is a very easy medium for actors—and a great medium as long as you’re a good reader. You don’t have to learn your lines, and it’s good fun.” It takes a day or two to record a 45-minute play, and actors can schedule the work around theater, television, or other commitments.
I was also surprised by some of the subject matter. One play touched on abortion, prostitution, dysfunctional family relationships, and brain disease—all in just 45 minutes! It wouldn’t have been shocking on stage or in a late-night spot on television, but at 2:15 in the afternoon on national radio? For Howe, it’s just part of the BBC’s mandate: “We’re a public-service broadcaster. We like to tell stories. We like to challenge our audience. Our audience likes to be challenged.”
“In the past, writers like Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter made their debuts as writers on the radio,” Howe continues, a mite boastfully. “What’s exciting about radio is that you can’t see anything, so it’s all in the world of the imagination. To be a good radio writer, you need to be imaginative. If film is about structure, radio is about words. Production is quite minimal, so there’s precious little between the writer’s words and what the audience hears. There’s an intimacy about radio drama: The audience have to bring a lot to it, so it lodges in the imagination.”
I confess I felt pretty unimaginative showing up at the Theatre Royal Haymarket to see exactly the kind of fusty pre-war drama that John Osborne and Joan Littlewood rose up against: Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. It’s the ultimate country-house comedy of manners—the story of a melodramatic retired actress, her writer husband, and their two adult children, each of whom invite a love interest to spend the weekend. The family then proceeds to ignore, upset, and embarrass their guests, until the visitors sneak away, unnoticed by their hosts.
The house was packed, despite a new record-high ticket price for a straight play. I’d guess that 98 percent of the theatergoers had chosen to spend their evening with this charming old chestnut for one reason: Dame Judi Dench as Judith Bliss, the star of the show. (The play’s poster was a giant photograph of the dame with the play’s title, author, and location jammed at the very bottom, almost an afterthought.) Although she’s made nearly 70 films and TV shows, and is always marvelous, whenever I see Dench on screen, I suspect I’m seeing just an outside edge of her talent. Such a controlled, quietly dominating actress is meant for the stage—ideally in a classical role. Well, Hay Fever isn’t classical, but it’s certainly a classic, and Dench’s hilarious, over-the-top portrayal was perfect. It was exactly what everyone had gone to the theater hoping to see.