RADIO / Sweet and sour: Robert Hanks tastes revenge, as told by Eleanor Bron

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Francis Bacon wrote that revenge is 'a kind of wild justice', he was trying to make the point that it is a bad, undesirable thing, in contrast to civilised justice. In hindsight, though, he didn't choose his words well: what the phrase seems to emphasise is the glamour of revenge, its attractive, romantic side. It's impossible to deny that this side exists - as Eleanor Bron's commentary pointed out in Revenge Is Sweet (Radio 4, Thursday), such wild justice has been the inspiration of not just a lot of good literature, but some of the very best - Medea, say, and Hamlet.

The appealing thing about Sara Conkey's clever feature was that it didn't downplay the joy of tit-for- tat, even allowing that the symmetry of action and reaction can give a kind of artistic satisfaction. Naturally, some of the people who contributed said the fairly obvious things against revenge ('It's not sweet, it's bitter'), and Eleanor Bron's introduction offered the suggestion that the need to get your own back is one of the nastier features that sets us apart from the beasts. But what made the first half of the programme fascinating were the contributions from people who had found revenge deeply satisfying, overturning received pieties. One woman - the programme quoted and endorsed Byron's line 'Revenge is sweet, especially to women' - said that ' 'Living well is the best revenge' is really a charming thought, but . . . I always figure that revenge is the best revenge.'

Her own example of vengeance, while poetic, was comparatively tame - she introduced a plagiarised passage into an essay she was writing for a lazy, two-timing boyfriend, leaving him impotent in the face of accusations of cheating. Better than that - because fiercer, ruder and more spontaneous - was the woman who cottoned on that her husband was having an affair with the female friend he had brought home for dinner, so went out to the kitchen, took her knickers off, sewed up the legs and strained the rice through them: the point of this story being that revenge needn't mean hurting your enemy. It's enough for the revenger to know.

What made the feature especially pleasing was the way it pulled off the trick of balancing this fairly light take on the subject - the first batch of anecdotes may have been mostly about broken relationships and emotional wreckage of one kind or another, but they were essentially funny and sharp - with a more negative view. After all, revenge may create masterpieces, but it can also be bleak and pointless: 'Look at Titus Andronicus,' a man suggested. 'Everyone's having revenge on everyone else, people are being raped and mutilated and blinded and murdered and cooked and eaten, and you can't even remember what it all started about. Could've just been a dispute over a parking space.' Possibly he should have supported that statement with some closer textual analysis, and maybe a bit more historical background, but the point was clear enough.

So the mood shifted in the programme's second half to give proper weight to the topic's darker side. We heard from a woman who nursed a grudge against a rapist for 13 years, and finally got her husband to firebomb the man's house; and from the father of a 12-year-old boy killed by a lorry driver, who tried to kill him when he came out of jail. Bron's commentary, too - sparing, and mostly well-placed - took a grim turn, becoming not just more serious, but also more bludgeoning: revenge may taste momentarily sweet, but what if it turns out to start 'a lynch mob, a vendetta, a war? Where's the sweetness in that?'

The point was made just as effectively by Don Federigo in Jeffrey Farnol's pirate shocker Martin Conisby's Vengeance (Radio 4, Saturday): 'Vengeance? Surely that is an empty thing; it cannot bring back that we have lost.'

Most of the qualities of Farnol's writing, in this and its predecessor, Black Bartlemy's Treasure, are negative: two-dimensional characters, predictable plots, stilted dialogue. What makes it compelling, oddly, is the moral - corny, but evidently sincere. When Conisby finally finds his enemy, Sir Richard Brandon, he is a victim of the Inquisition, ennobled by his suffering, and all thought of revenge dies. Brandon eventually expires in his arms, while Conisby sheds a not unmanly tear.

Michael Bartlett's adaptation and Glyn Dearman's production, with its lavish score, never betray a smile - never admit that this is anything less than Art, everything pulpish elevated by its lofty sentiments. That makes it possible for the listener to perform the vital piece of doublethink - taking it seriously at the same time as knowing it's trash. If you can pull it off, it's a very neat trick.