“David Timson’s radio revival underlined the social and political tensions lurking beneath the polished surface of the text. Consider the end of the first act: Lady Chiltern (Emma Fielding) is shocked to discover that Sir Robert, her outwardly upstanding husband (Alex Jennings) has a shady past; he will be ruined unless Mrs. Cheveley (Janet McTeer), a blackmailing ‘woman in heliotrope with diamonds,’ has her demands fulfilled. But as soon as Lady Chiltern feels betrayed, Robert tries to justify himself by talking about the curative powers of love: “It is not the perfect, but the imperfect who have need of love.” Jennings delivered this line in a passionate tone; his voice became shriller and shriller as he tried to explain the reason for his youthful transgression: “I did not sell myself for money … I bought success at a great price. That is all.”
An Ideal Husband takes a long hard look at Sir Robert Chiltern’s (Alex Jennings’) past, and asks whether he has sufficient moral clout to function as an effective Member of Parliament. At a time when the behaviour of today’s MPs is under close scrutiny – particularly their extravagant claims for expenses – An Ideal Husband still has the capacity to disturb as well as entertain. One can’t help thinking of the Stephen Sondheim song from his immortal musical Follies: ‘Ah, but Underneath.’
At the same time Timson offered ample opportunities for other members of his cast to show off their vocal skills. “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people whom we personally dislike,” intoned Mrs. Cheveley, as she remained blissfully indifferent to Sir Robert’s entreaties. Social roles meant nothing to her; she believed it was her right to hold her MP to ransom. As performed by Sara Kestelman, Lady Markby came across as the precursor of Lady Bracknell in Earnest: “As a rule, everybody turns out to be somebody else,” she surmised soon after her first appearance. Viscount Goring (Jasper Britton), ostensibly Sir Robert’s best friend and confidante, came across as a supreme narcissist. He showed no real concern for his best friend; what mattered more was that he (Goring) should be in at the kill if Sir Robert was going to be ruined.
This revival was impeccably cast, with Geoffrey Palmer (Lord Caversham), Kestelman and Fielding outstanding in their respective roles. They seemed thoroughly at home with the Wildean text, taking due care to pronounce each word clearly, allowing each witticism to impress itself on the listeners’ consciousness. This production reminded us of Wilde’s ability to write good roles for everyone, irrespective of gender or age.”
“Timson’s production for Radio 3 was a classic 18th century English comedy – ‘The Rivals’ by Sheridan. Starring Patricia Routledge and Geoffrey Palmer it promised to bubble over with theatrical fun. It was broadcast on 25th September 2005.”
Pick of the Day
“Kenneth Branagh conveyed Nelson’s complexity as a man and managed to sound both classical and modern as an actor. At first I wondered what Nelson had seen in the drunken, volatile, vulgar blacksmith’s daughter, but although Janet McTeer’s performance as Emma Hamilton might have been over the top it was mesmerising nonetheless.
Rattigan ingeniously used Nelson’s baffled young nephew George Matcham (Steven France) to delineate and explain the hatred felt by Nelson and his close family towards the blameless Lady Nelson (Amanda Root), who still loved her husband. Forced to confront the truth, he tells the boy that it’s really guilt that lies behind his refusal even to receive letters from his wife. His love for Hamilton emerges as something quite simple, really —lustful sex of the kind he clearly failed to experience with his wife. Emma knew a thing or two. Although McTeer portrays her as a tiresome, unattractive figure of fun, one mustn’t forget that she had been an artist’s model, much admired for her beauty, painted by George Romney no less, and still only 40 when Nelson died. Without Nelson she slid downhill and died ten years later in poverty. Although she’d been left as ‘a bequest to the nation’ by her lover, the government ignored this unusual request. It was radio drama at its best with a strong cast: Gerard Horan as a no-nonsense Captain Hardy and John Shrapnel as the wily, scheming Lord Minto. The play was made by an independent company, Naxos Audio Books, directed by David Timson and produced by Nicolas Soames.”
– The Spectator
“Shedding their clothes for mens’ mags has become a fashionable rite of passage for certain performers – a mark of status before gravity and over-familiarity get them struck off the editors’ wish lists. While not implying that this is akin to entering one of the oldest callings – as exemplified in Mrs Warren’s Profession – I wonder if in years to come they too, like Mrs Warren, will be spurned by daughters with radically different ethics. John Tydeman’s crisp direction delineated neatly the many hypocrisies in society at the very end of the Victorian era when Shaw wrote this play. We may laugh now at the fact that it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for 30years, presumably for pointing out that Mrs Warren not only ran a group of continental brothels but had done very well out of them, rather than for its perspective on the exploitation of women in the workplace. But more than 100 years on, it is still a very modern-sounding drama, its effect only dulled slightly by Shaw’s inability to create characters who are much more than ciphers.
Roger Hammond’s depiction of the local vicar as a bumbling fogey incapacitated by alcohol, for which he has invented the condition ‘clergyman’s throat’, provided comedy while Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie was played by Claire Skinner with the requisite earnest prissiness. Her mother’s unseemly profits means that Vivie can afford to take her moral stance but is nevertheless prepared to sell herself short in her own career.
Diana Quick was a bit of a panto turn as Mrs Warren, one of two ‘well made’ daughters of a woman ‘who called herself a widow’ and who had used their physical attributes to pull themselves out of penury. By contrast, their two ugly half-sisters had opted for what Shaw saw as the slavery of respectable poverty. As Mrs Warren’s genteel affectations were revealed as such and her real history unveiled, Quick’s portrait became increasingly vaudevillian, her accent plummeting into the gutter. She was physically recreating her old self in front of our eyes – I should say ears but I saw this woman as clearly as if she was standing before me.”
– The Stage
“Shaw was surely better at women than Dickens, and John Tydeman’s Radio 3 production of Mrs Warren’s Profession dealing with social hypocrisy and prostitution, should be up there as the best radio production of the year. With Diana Quick and Claire Skinner as the warring mother and daughter, the tone shifted from spiteful bravura to heart-torn wisdom, Shaw’s scalding wit holding off any lurch into melodrama.”
– The Herald, Scotland
“I never thought I would spend two hours by the radio, listening to Samson Agonistes. On Sunday night, I did. What did I get out of it, apart from the occasional quiver when I recognised the gobbets I learned for long-ago exams? The strong impression that Milton would never have been strong box office. This was his only play and, within its Greek tragedy conventions, the story is familiar, all the action has either already happened or takes place off stage. Like Oedipus or Agamemnon, it’s about truth and consequences but all we have to grasp their workings-out are voices, words.
On the page, they unroll, often slowly. On the air, they cascaded. The performances were superb: Iain Glen as the blinded Samson, bound by chains to the mill he must turn to grind corn for his deadly enemies; David De Keyser as his aged father; Philip Madoc as Harpaha, champion of Gath, who comes to taunt him; Samantha Bond as Dalila; Michael Maloney as the Messenger and, most remarkable of all, a three-man chorus, Tim Bentinck, Simon Treves and Sean Barrett, whose dialogue with Samson actually sounded like speech. (The thought that here was David Archer talking to Samson, I admit, crossed my mind but only twice.) John Tydeman directed. He and his cast shook off every speck of dust. That blind author who died four centuries ago shone in the air.”
– Gillian Reynolds – Daily Telegraph
“At one level, John Milton’s dramatic poem Samson Agonistes depicts the struggle of Samson (Iain Glen) to overcome the Philistines. As in Greek drama, a three-person Chorus (Tim Bentinck, Simon Treves, Sean Barrett) comments on the action, both guiding listeners as to how they should read the poem and introducing what will happen next. On another level, Samson Agonistes depicts the struggles of the poet trying to write while virtually blind. The Biblical story functions as an allegory of artistic creation. Samson’s physical strength corresponds to the poet’s verbal strength; if either of them lose their faculties, they will be reduced to nothing. They try to show off their powers at every opportunity – as, for example, in the poem’s lengthy speeches, where the poet makes inventive use of the iambic pentameter form.
With Dalila’s (Samantha Bond’s) entrance, however, the poem’s tone alters. Rather than relying on his own strength, Samson blames her for his failings; she tempted him into becoming “ungodly” – i.e. weak. Although Dalila protests her innocence, Samson cannot acknowledge that his failings are entirely self-created. At this point Samson Agonistes comes dangerously close to misogynist fantasy, which seems rather at odds with the poem’s stated purpose.
However, once Herapha (Philip Madoc) comes on the scene, casting aspersions on Samson’s strength – both mental and physical – the protagonist recovers himself. Despite overwhelming odds, Samson not only escapes from the Philistines, but knocks down the walls of Gaza and thereby frees the Israelites. He acquires an inner determination that resists criticism and at the same time inspires him to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his people. As reported in the third person by the Chorus, his struggles only acquired a quasi-journalistic immediacy, with the actors delivering their lines breathlessly, as if they had come straight from the scene of Samson’s struggles. The last half-hour of John Tydeman’s production was particularly gripping, with the Chorus’s narrative conjuring up a scene similar to the climax of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000), as one man vanquishes the forces of destruction ranged against him. However Samson Agonistes assumes an extra dimension of meaning, as we recall that Samson’s triumph is also the poet’s triumph, as he finds sufficient mental and physical resources to complete his last major work.
Tydeman celebrated the power of the imagination – not only of Milton himself, but also of his cast, whose dramatic delivery transformed the poem from a dry-as-ditchwater account of Biblical events (as I remember from my undergraduate days) into a vivid, compelling narrative.”
“Best known as the inspiration for Mozart’s opera of the same name, The Marriage of Figaro came across in David Timson’s production as a rollicking farce involving a stroppy servant Figaro (Rupert Degas), his fiancee Suzanne (Joannah Tracey), and an aristocrat (Nicholas Rowe) trying every possible means to prevent Figaro and Suzanne’s marriage. The action owed a lot to commedia dell’arte in its use of multiple disguises, contrived situations where the dramatis personae concealed themselves behind any convenient tree, curtain or door, unexpected revelations of identity, and shifting (not to say protean) identities.
Timson is an old hand at adapting, as well as directing radio drama; in this revival he understood the importance of overlapping voices, enabling the action to unfold at breakneck speed. By such means we could enjoy the plot for its own sake without concentrating too much on its implausibilities. Figaro took great pleasure in communicating his thoughts through asides; as a trickster-figure he had licence to establish a close rapport with listeners. Radio is an ideal medium for this kind of device: we feel that the characters are talking only to us, and thereby creating the kind of intimacy that seemed particularly appropriate for this most domestic of farces. This could have been a risky move; if we placed too much reliance on the trickster’s words, we might be duped in much the same fashion as the Count. However our trust in Figaro is increased by a belief in the fundamental rightness of his cause; why should he kow-tow to aristocrats who want to ruin his life, simply because they can no longer exploit him? In Timson’s production this sense of justice increased as the action progressed; we became more and more enamoured of Figaro’s cause. He became a symbol of the underdog striving to free himself from the upper-class yoke.
This is just what Beaumarchais would have wanted; at the height of the French Revolution, he was brought before the revolutionary council, having been a royal servant. His life was spared when he declared in his defence that he was the creator of Figaro. The character epitomizes the underdog striving to escape from exploitation, and was hugely popular with the revolutionaries. Napoleon realized Figaro’s significance when he declared the play to be “the Revolution in action.”
“In Roy McMillan’s radio version, Sophie Okonedo was notable for her self-control; despite continual attacks from Bosola (Bertie Carvel), Ferdinand (Jonathan Slinger) and the Cardinal (Oliver Senton), she remained true to her beliefs and desires. Her love for Antonio (Rory Kinnear) never wavered; likewise her determination to resist and say nothing. This was truly someone to be admired.
However McMillan’s production also underlined Webster’s basic misogyny. While the Duchess is certainly an admirable person, she has to live in a world whose male characters are given carte blanche to insult her in any way they wish.
As with many classic revivals I have heard this year, this Duchess proved a revelation. Only while listening to Webster’s dialogue could I understand how contradictory the play actually is, with its fundamentally misogynist content offset by a magnificent female central character. Perhaps it is this quality that renders it so enduringly popular for modern directors.”
“While The Chalk Garden might not be the classic that director Grandage claimed – in his introductory piece to the radio version – I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
“I did not see the original stage production; but from the evidence of what I heard, this revival stripped away a lot of the clichés associated with Shakespeare’s play and presented it in a new and threatening light. No one seemed safe in a dog-eat-dog world discouraging individual thought, where outsiders were regarded as potential threats to the status quo. Michael Grandage should be congratulated on a superb evening’s listening.”
“Faust (Samuel West) and Mephistopheles (Toby Jones) had a rare old time competing for our attentions: West with his soft, hypnotic voice reminiscent of a British Henry Fonda; Jones with his infinite variety of hissing sibillants, resembling a snake trying to worm its way into Faust’s (and the listeners’) consciousness.”