RADIO / Apocalypse then: Robert Hanks reviews a week of Dreams and Censorship, The Man with Night Sweats, The Cutting Edge and Soundtrack

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The Independent Culture
You can divide historical fiction into two kinds - the kind that invents coincidence (Blake runs into Tom Paine in Lambeth; Lenin collides with Joyce and Tzara in Zurich) and the kind that tries to eliminate it completely, leaving nothing to chance. Dreams and Censorship (Radio 3, Sunday) was the second kind: everything random that happened here was David Pownall's invention, and the actual coincidence behind the play - the publication of the King James Bible in 1610 and the staging of The Tempest in 1611 - was elaborately roped together by a fiction of cause and effect.

The action happens in Oxford in the summer of 1610: Shakespeare (Edward Petherbridge) invades the committee of churchmen just finishing the translation of the Bible to relay his good friend the King's anxiety about the Revelation of St John, which has some nasty lines about eating kings. When the King himself arrives, it comes out that Shakespeare is the author of his worries: he thinks Revelation will feed a popular hunger for apocalyptic imagery - 'Thirty years in the theatre have given me a sense of what is about to become fashionable' - and sedition will come of it.

A history that ignores hindsight is missing something; but Pownall's nods to what's coming were too deferential by half. Prophetic flashes of a war that's 30 years off were strained, but easier to take than James's unconsciously ironic references to his son's fate - he has a good head on his shoulders - or Shakespeare's fear that nobody will want to read his plays when they have this new Bible. 'All the best minds will be full of Genesis, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Kings, Acts: stories of lust, murder, sacrifice, redemption - who will need to live outside those pages?'

In another way, too, the play was over- informed by a modern perspective, so that hearing it was like reading Shakespeare illuminated by flashes of neon strip-lighting: Freud was everywhere. The 10-year-old Prince Charles dreams of 'prodding whores with minds like sewers'; Shakespeare writes plays that deliberately embody universal psychological truths - the Desdemona Principle, the Scottish Play Paradigm. The clerics translating the Bible have amused themselves by writing a drama about St John (Robert Stephens) on Patmos - an island, it's established, full of noises - and Prince Charles is accidentally hired to play a Vestal. When she is crucified during the climactic performance of the play, the King, sitting in the audience, bursts into tears, his own buried grief for his mother suddenly, and in a very 20th-century way, unlocked. So moved is he that he consents to have the Revelation published. Shakespeare, meanwhile, decides to write one last play, which will also be about an island full of dreams.

Historically and psychologically this leaked at every joint; but as a think-piece about the ways that literature can answer to common dreams and fantasies, and dreams can respond to life, it was rich and diverting.

Dreams of a more personal apocalypse were contained in The Man with Night Sweats (Radio 3, Monday-Friday), five nightly readings by Thom Gunn from his recent collection of poems. Last Monday he read the title-poem, spoken by a man who wakes sweating and assumes he has Aids - he hugs himself protectively, 'as if hands were enough to hold an avalanche off'. In Gunn's readings, there was a sense of compassion and directness oddly lacking in The Cutting Edge (Radio 4, Thursday), in which an HIV-positive woman was insistently quizzed by Dr David Cook about her desire to have a child.

Both programmes seemed almost luxuriously personal compared with Soundtrack (Radio 4, Thursday). The title, 'Zero Grazing', seemed to hint at some final reckoning. In fact 'grazing' is the Ugandan custom of trying out a few potential spouses before marriage: 'zero grazing' is a government objective to slow the spread of Aids. There's not, you gathered, much hope of it being achieved in a society that's stubbornly and wholeheartedly polygamous.

Joel Kibazo, a thoroughly Anglicised Baganda, conducted a tour of his family and homeland, to show how Aids had hurt them. Visiting an ever-expanding family plot, Kibazo touched the graves of his forefathers - 'It's kind of a funny feeling, knowing where you're going to be buried. But . . . it's at least a feeling that one will come home at some point.' Home was the key-word in a sympathetic, undramatic piece of reportage: and more than most horror stories from here or America, this brought the pain home.

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