Amidst the panic of theatre closures and the wonderful avalanche of classic shows being made available to watch online, a major repository of drama has been missed, one that continues to premiere brand new performances and adaptations of well-known plays every week while enticing some of our best-loved stage stars to appear in them. Like other kinds of theatre it requires technical and artistic direction as well as a creative team to help the audience to visualise the setting and contextualise the characters, and, in perfect compliance with lockdown rules, you don’t even need to leave the house. Where are all these wonderful new productions – they’re on the radio.
Radio drama is the forgotten cousin of the stage, and while millions tune in regularly, the vast majority of theatre fans barely know its there. Within the theatre echo chamber, when was the last time you saw someone tweet about a fantastic radio play or, excluding a couple of new lockdown evens, see coverage of upcoming airings in a theatre newsletter? And apart from the announced (and much promoted) premiere of The Understudy in two parts next month, when is radio drama ever considered a “must-listen” event, it doesn’t even warrant critical review.
Yet, every week some of the UK’s finest acting talent, whether up-and-coming early career performers or well established titans, appear on the airwaves and its all completely free. In this drought of live theatre when full-length productions are being streamed on Youtube or uploaded to the BBC iPlayer, why isn’t radio part of the conversation, because if you want your fix of new drama then all you have to do is tune in.
Perhaps it is partly because radio plays have a slightly undeserved reputation for being (ironically) too “stagey”, over-emphatic actors trying to do too much with their voice and creating a false sounding effect in which the rhythms of natural speech become stilted when there are no visual clues to bound reactions and characterisation. Yet, while we’ve been running to the West End and other spaces for core interpretations of major plays, radio stations have been stealing a march on physical theatre with some top quality productions. Some of the standout interpretations of recent years include John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger with David Tennant, Nancy Caroll and Daniel Evans (2016) and a stunning A Streetcar Named Desire from 2017 with Anne Marie Duff , John Heffernan and Matthew Needham which was recently repeated. While only yesterday a new version of Henry IV – Part One with Iain Glenn, Toby Jones and Luke Thompson aired on Radio 3, a lockdown treat with some of our finest stage performers.
Last week, Drama on 3 also premiered a new Othello, slimmed to two hours by director Emma Harding and relocated to the near future where Turkey threatens to invade Cyprus. Against this reconsidered backdrop, Harding was keen to explore how the play’s concept of “otherness”, that dogs Othello’s acceptance and integration through the story, links to what may once have been a Muslim faith. A converted Christian in the play, there is little to indicate who Othello was before we meet him, but it is an interesting hook for a story familiar through recent stage productions including the National Theatre’s 2013 version with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear and The Globe’s 2018 attempt with Mark Rylance and Andre Holland.
Atmospherically enhanced by music between the scenes, the subtly of Harding’s approach keeps Othello himself slightly beyond the other characters, a man whose religious and cultural background may have more in common with his enemies than his Venetian comrades. At heart Othello, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, reflects on the politics of power as its central character – the villainous Iago – seeks revenge after being overlooked for promotion. The military, social and religious themes within the play flow from and into Iago’s plot to drive a wedge between Othello and his wife, while raising suspicion about “the Moor’s” judgement and appropriateness for office as Iago goads the extremes of his jealously and temper.
Harding never forgets this and in the shortened radio format, vividly emphasises how duplicitously Othello’s reason is first isolated and then undermined, giving a driving inevitability to the panic and anger that result in the play’s multiple and quick-fire deaths. It creates a great deal of momentum in this production in which the initial lie escalates very quickly, allowing the audience to see how disbelief and dismissal translate so purposefully into despair and fury as Iago separates and then carefully controls the flow of information around the Cypriot base.
Harding’s key achievement here is in skillfully creating the context in which the action takes place, which, with no visual clues or effects to rely on, must emerge entirely from the technical application of sound design as well as the tone and atmosphere developed through the performances and how they are recorded. There is considerable sophistication in the way audio effects are integrated into the production to prompt the audience’s imagination as the sound of busy Venetian streets and the babble of people living in close quarters flesh-out the physical world in which the action takes place. Unlike theatre, radio must inspire rather than proscribe, forcing the audience to conjure every scene and character in their own minds led by the judicious application of these effects. And throughout this honed two-hour piece, you are transported to the changing locations through sound and voice, allowing the listener to focus on the developing drama and visualise the interactions more easily.
This is, for the most part, a softly-spoken version of the play, one in which the air of secrecy creates an intimacy between the audience and Iago especially as his stratagems are outlined with a whispering intensity. Harding generates considerable tension by focusing on the ferocity of Iago’s anger distilled as a patient and pantherous stalking of his prey. And while most of the soliloquies are needfully cut to bring this to two hours, the attention to character development and purpose still makes sense of Shakespeare’s characters, creating an intimate confederacy with the audience.
Matthew Needham has developed quite a portfolio of interesting projects in the last few years but is probably best known for his lonely self-destructive doctor in Rebecca Frecknall’s glorious revival of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Duke of York’s. Continuing the Williams theme, prior to this his performance as Stanley in Drama on 3’s A Streecar Named Desire (sadly not currently available) was outstanding, using vocal variation to imply the strutting masculinity and brute strength of a Stanley you couldn’t see while vividly drawing-out the character’s sensitivity and bristling sexuality, devotion to his wife and social status. That ability to give his creation a solid physicality and dimensional shape using only Williams’s dialogue was fascinating in what was a high-quality drama across the board. Casting Needham as Iago is, then, a canny decision, one that is fundamental to the success of this Othello.
Iago is a political creature willing to go to considerable lengths to achieve his ends. Needham’s interpretation has a restrained charm, inveigling his way into Othello’s favour all the while manipulating events with an air of perfect innocence. In the tense and suspicious climate that Harding has created, it is all too easy for Needham’s Iago to disrupt the harmony of the military base, telling tales to different comrades that they instantly believe through his remarkably successful divide and conquer strategy. The appearance of credibility, Needham suggests, makes sense of Othello, Roderigo and Cassio’s readiness to trust and rely on him, little knowing that pulling their strings serves his own wider purpose.
It is an absorbing performance, supported by the proximity of those low-voiced monologues which Iago shares just with the audience and only on the radio does a greater rapport with the listener emerge, as though Needham’s hushed tones are poured directly into your ear in a bond of allegiance between you and him alone. He is dangerous too and while there is little suggestion of physical strength, instead the ruthlessness of the character is foregrounded, the willingness to use any means at his disposal to manufacture Othello’s suffering with little regard for the consequences. The final moments of the play in which Othello instigates his tragic revenge are enhanced by the qualities of this Iago, and how carefully Needham has primed the audience for the lovers’ confrontation. If you were disappointed by Mark Rylance’s larkey approach, then Needham’s chilling creation is a great antidote.
Khalid Abdalla’s Othello draws from this culture of suspicion and secrecy that Harding creates, charting the progress of a military leader returning in triumph with his new wife and the world at his feet to a paranoid and distrustful man. The way in which Abdalla sheds the protective armor of role and status to reveal the scarred and frightened humanity underneath is really well achieved using the tone and level of his voice to convey Othello’s growing distress. Later, as that turns to anger, the tragic conclusive scene is grippingly played as Abdalla’s Othello builds tension though the vocal performance, suggesting how completely his mind has been irrationally poisoned by jealousy, but also what an intimidating warrior he still is, before regret and shame consume his final moments in what is a layered and enjoyably rich performance.
There is some great support from the female roles as well with Cassie Layton’s bewildered Desdemona suggesting equality in her marriage in the early scenes and, while still an innocent victim of Iago’s trick, pleads with determination and calm surety when faced with her husband’s groundless accusations. Likewise, Bettrys Jones’s Emilia is a more powerful force in the play than often seen, devoted to her mistress and proving her worth in the closing scene as she forcibly berates Othello. She is also entirely unaware of her husband Iago’s treachery and the deception implied in Jones’s performance ties neatly into Harding’s overarching approach, emphasing the role of Iago in destabilising this group of people to create a culture in which marital deception – or the assumption of it – becomes the norm.
Some of the very best versions of Shakespeare’s plays are also the simplest, letting the rhythm of the language, its imagery and pscyhological construction guide the forward motion of the drama. And with only voices and sound, where better than the radio to stage this well considered adaptation that allows the listener to focus on writing and characterisation. Harding’s original intention to consider the clash of socio-religious culture doesn’t get as much attention as it needs, atlhough it is a interesting interpretation, but when Iago’s plot takes hold, the play develops a momentum of its own. With new and archive classics available online, it’s time for BBC Radio radio drama to stop being so modest because, with fresh adaptations and some of our greatest acting talent already onboard, it has much to contribute to our ongoing thirst for theatre.