I listened last night to the BBC’s new radio production of Twelfth Night, starring David Tennant, Ron Cook, Naomi Frederick and a host of other fantastic actors. I’m not going to offer a review, as I can’t claim to particularly like or enjoy radio drama. It did, however, force me to ask a couple of questions of myself regarding how I experience the form.
Quite simply, I struggle to see what people get out of the form. I have always held up my hands and admitted that my interest in Shakespearean performance is in staging. The language is, of course, an important part of that, but the dialogue is contextualised by blocking, proxemics, expression, visual elements, audience response etc. While I have no objection to a purely auditory experience of listening to actors speak Shakespeare’s verse, I don’t personally get a great deal out of it.
Further, on the basis of this production and others I’ve heard, I’m concerned that radio productions of Shakespeare tend towards the most conservative possible reading of the play. The use of sound effects throughout evoked in me the impression of a 19th century theatrical production, obsessed with accuracy of set and setting – to the extent that, at the end of the gulling scene, Malvolio and Fabian triumphed in the garden; and then there was a quick break, the sound of a door slamming, and the clowns arriving back at the house to congratulate Maria. Throughout, the aim appeared to be to create the impression of a lived, naturalistic setting, yoking the play to real places rather than the fluid spaces that characterise early modern drama.
The performances were fine. I particularly enjoyed Tennant’s growling Scots Malvolio and Cook’s belching, slurring Sir Toby (reprising a role he’s played very effectively on stage, of course). But the medium appears to me to appeal to the most ingrained, obvious readings of characters. I can understand why purists might enjoy this kind of drama – what it does do is focus attention on the text, and forces actors to work with the humour of the words rather than, in the current RSC fashion, inserting crotch-grabs and fart jokes as easy cues. Still, I long to hear a radio production that does something truly extraordinary with a play, something that innovates rather than consolidates.