April 29, 2012

Radio Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (BBC Drama on 3)

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01g4vv1

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.


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  1. Laurence Raw

    I think this review actually reveals your own prejudices, rather than approaching the production on its own terms. If you regularly listened to productions of Jacobethan drama – for example, a recent WHITE DEVIL set in contemporary Italy – you would find that directors adopt a wide variety of approaches to a text, just as their counterparts might do in the theatre. Secondly, it is the case that radio actually focuses attention on the words rather than the visuals, something which some Shakespeare scholars might argue was the whole point of Shakespearean language: the visuals are encoded within the text, rather than requiring any elaboration by the director. Thirdly, I think you would find that the majority of productions of TWELFTH NIGHT, as with other Shakespeare plays, make use of “a lived, naturalistic setting” – and I’m not just talking about British Shakespeare. Perhaps you’d better listen to more Shakespeare to find out the breadth of possibilities available in the aural medium. Might I recommend the MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, broadcast last September on Radio 3, or the TWELFTH NIGHT transposed to a Caribbean island, which had been broadcast twice on Radio 4 Extra?

    29 Apr 2012, 12:17

  2. Lawrence: hate to be a pedant, but I do explicitly say that this isn’t a review – it’s a blog post, and is intended to be about my own prejudices!

    I admit very happily that I’m not a regular radio listener, so I’m working with a limited pool of experience; I’m simply responding to this and the other radio productions I have listened to. I can answer a couple of your points with clarifications though. Your first note on White Devil mentions an updated setting for it, but I’d be interested to know how, on radio, that actually affects the text.

    Secondly – yes, some Shakespeare scholars would absolutely argue that visuals are encoded in the text. However, that’s precisely my point in this post. Scholarship and practice over the last forty years (I would say) has been moving towards increased recognition of the stagecraft and dramaturgy implicit in writing. Rather than thinking about visual elements as something imposed by a modern director, the work that’s been done on masques, on implicit staging, on blocking, on silences, on early modern costume, staging, make-up etc. – all of this work has re-positioned the plays in the visual/aural medium of theatre, rather than concentrating purely on language in the way scholars were more inclined to do in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when there was a clearer division between criticism and practice. What I’m not saying here (and I think I do say this clearly) is that radio is inferior – I’m saying that it’s rooted in a much more conservative discourse about what’s considered to be of value in Shakespeare.

    Thirdly – yes, you’re absolutely right, Twelfth Night suffers more than any other play from conservatism and painfully dull Victorian-style stagings, and I’ve written about that elsewhere, so doubtless this particular example isn’t representative of a whole trend. I’ll be listening to the BBC’s Romeo though, and I’ll see if I can’t track down the others you recommend. Thank you!

    29 Apr 2012, 13:14

  3. Laurence Raw

    Thanks for your reply, and I’ll forgive you for spelling my first name wrongly. I am interested to read your comments on the ways in which Shakespeare criticism has worked over the last decades or so. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I always thought that one of the guiding principles of the Royal Shakespeare Company – for instance – was its emphasis on language and verse-speaking, a principle that applied in a transmedial context. But this is by the by; we couid argue about the merits and demerits of radio vis-a-vis the stage at length. But what I would say is that radio has a greater breadth and potential for Shakespeare staging than you might think: one only has to think of Orson Welles’ groundbreaking broadcasts for the Mercury Theatre in the 1940s, or the numerous productions produced within the anthology series for CBS and ABC as evidence. The BBC likewise has supported innovation, especially during the days of the Third Programme, when it positively encouraged alternative approaches. But hey, let’s continue this discussion when we’ve listened to and blogged/reviewed Romeo and Juliet after tonight!

    29 Apr 2012, 20:19

  4. Apologies for the misspelling Laurence. Absolutely – I don’t mean to diminish the importance of language and verse-speaking, but of course even in the RSC’s most functional productions, there’s still an important visual element, even at the most basic level of being able to see the reaction to a given line. And I completely agree that I’ve hardly given radio a fair chance; the point of this post was to open up discussion about my initial reactions and prompt exactly the kind of response you’ve offered. As you say, I’ll look forward to hearing Romeo!

    29 Apr 2012, 20:26

  5. Duncan

    The plays in this series are all available as podcasts, so one immediate benefit of these vanilla productions is that they provide a portable revision aid for students of the plays.

    30 Apr 2012, 11:18

  6. Following up Duncan’s comment, downloads can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/so3

    30 Apr 2012, 12:26

  7. Laurence Raw

    I reviewed ROMEO AND JULIET on the site www.radiodramareviews.com. Would be interested in feedback if you get the chance to read it. Or at least to mention you disagree!!

    30 Apr 2012, 17:23

  8. Steve P

    I’ve started listening to radio drama quite regularly recently (I tend to have it on in the car during my commute, and will often download an Elizabethan play). I haven’t listened to the new Twelfth Night yet, but I certainly plan to.

    Coming to audio drama from a background in theatre was initially a bit of a problem for me: I especially missed the interpretive scope allowed by theatre’s visual elements. I think a few major audio productions have fallen into the same trap of thinking about radio as if it were theatre: the BBC’s Julius Caesar, for example, is set in a Fascist 1920s Rome, but completely neglects to reinforce the concept aurally as the play progresses, so that by the time I’d got to the end, I’d completely forgotten about the setting, and was rather surprised when it resurfaced. The Radio 3 White Devil which Laurence refers to was much more successful, utilising recognisably modern sound effects throughout (voices were heard via telephone, intercom etc., music was modern, and so on). But what both examples show is that concept-driven ‘director’s theatre’ needs to be fairly heavy-handed if it’s to work on the radio.

    What I think needs to be appreciated with audio drama is that it’s a completely different form, and what may be conservative in the theatre isn’t necessarily conservative on the radio. At its best, radio drama is much more about suggestion, and I’ve found that some of my favourite audio adaptations have been pretty straightforward conceptually, but have drawn my attention to the nuances of intonation in ways that I don’t think a theatre production would be able to do. Because the medium’s so reliant on it, the spoken word carries much more weight, and works upon the imagination of the listener in a much more profound way.

    I’d be really interested to listen to a Shakespearean theatre production recorded ‘live’ (i.e. complete with audience laughter etc.) – does anyone know of any? I’d be intrigued to see how it works.

    30 Apr 2012, 18:43

  9. It’s a fine review Laurence, though I think we hear different things based on our levels of experience with the format. I still found myself disappointed by the lack of ambient noise – either the ‘liveness’ of a theatrical production or the natural sounds that would locate the characters in a fully realised environment (the bits of ambience that were included, such as the crickets, I felt rather pointed up how artificially clean the voices were). I liked Tennant’s panicky sounding Prince, voice breaking as he attempted to assert control in his first appearance; I disliked the way many of the speeches were rushed through, particularly in the first scene between Juliet, Nurse and Lady Capulet. I’m pleased you got so much out of it though.

    30 Apr 2012, 18:52

  10. Thanks for your thoughts Steve, and I think you’re right about less being more. My reaction to conservatism came primarily from the production’s insistence on creating ‘real’ locations, to the point of breaking up 2.5 in order to allow Toby and co to return to the house in order to continue the scene with Maria, which I found irritatingly restrictive in terms of keeping the flow of the words. The Romeo is much better in that regard, especially once it settles. I’m intrigued at the difference in the quality of voices though – to my ears, it sounds like actors are reading, albeit reading very well.

    I should clarify further that I’m not complaining about productions being conservative in terms of e.g. setting – I agree with Steve that directorial concepts don’t translate as well to this medium. I’d be more concerned about conservatism in the readings of the characters, which is something I found with Twelfth Night but less so with Romeo.

    30 Apr 2012, 19:17

  11. Laurence Raw

    I saw the rushed speeches as part of the characters’ immaurity; they didn’t believe what they were saying because they’d never lived it. In answer to Steve’s comment, Radio 3 did A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM recorded live with music at the Middle Temple Hall, complete with audience reaction. It was first broadcast in 2009 and repeated over Christmas week this year. But I agree that it would be fun to record more stuff live.

    30 Apr 2012, 21:51

  12. Laurence Raw

    PS I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that a reinterpretation (re-reading) of a play has to be heavy handed on radio. I think this notion stems from an attempt to impose one’s theatrical and/or cinematic expectations on a different medium of communication. After all, one wouldn’t say that Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre productions from the 1930s, which started off life on Radio and subsequently went to the theatre, were especially ‘heavy=handed,’ would we? A matter of opinion, I know; but Welles did cut his teeth on radio before venturing theatrewards.

    30 Apr 2012, 21:55

  13. Steve P

    Laurence – you’re right, of course: “heavy-handed” is unfair. What I should have said was “insistent”, and an insistent production may be very good indeed (I very much enjoyed the insistence on the setting in the BBC White Devil, for example, and didn’t mean to suggest that it detracted from the production). I must give the Welles adaptations a listen, and I’ll certainly look out for a recording of the Dream you mention. Thanks for the tip!

    03 May 2012, 16:19


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


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