RADIO / The maharajah and the macaroni

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE LAST Nizam of Hyderabad was the richest man in the world. In his sumptuous palace lived more than 900 people, including a battalion of cooks. Feasting and junketing were continuous and, outside the shooting season, a stuffed tiger was propelled down a hillside for casual target-practice. But the Nizam was miserly: he saved cigarette butts, he refused his guests second helpings of icecream, and he always used the same stuffed tiger. Leslie Forbes, on The Indian Spice Trail (R3), was incredulous. ``Wasn't it full of holes?'' she asked. Her ancient informant, grandson of the Nizam's chief minister, agreed: ``Oh yes, he was well peppered-up.''

Thus did we drift back to her real subject: the food in the Nizam's fabulous court. You could hear his eyes mist over as he swore that still, in his dreams, he could savour the gorgeous taste of the soup. It was called, he said, slowly and reverently, Mock Turtle. We had been led to expect something a little more aromatic, so Forbes tried again. But she'd picked the wrong man. The only other delicacy of these ambrosial banquets to linger in his memory was ``cheese macaroni''.

Kipling in Love (R4) is pungent with patchouli and etched in sepia, subtle and haunting. Ed Thomason's dramatisation of these Indian stories does full justice to the genius of a writer too often dismissed as jingoistic, whose real concern is nearly always for the suffering individual. This week's In the Pride of his Youth starred Sam West as Dicky Hatt, a man young and green as cardamom, who leaves his newly pregnant wife behind when he takes a job in India. The story is slight - the child dies, the wife goes off with his best friend, Dicky performs a daring stunt and then resigns his job - but it was superbly presented, with never a wasted word. West's performance - collar and upper-lip stiff as heart and ambition crumbled - was a masterpiece of understatement, and Trevor Allan Davies's music was exactly right.

There is a market square in the north-east of India where Hamlet, in the local language, is continuously performed; people there have a particular obsession with Ophelia's drowning. Dragan Kleic's production of the same play in Bucharest was a cathartic, potent focus for resistance to Ceaucescu. When Janet Suzman put on Othello in South Africa, she did not dress her Iago as Eugene Terreblanche, but nobody missed the identification. These facts came from Everybody's Shakespeare (R3), in which Michael Kustow celebrated the extraordinary universality of a poet whose work carries such richness of ambiguity that even people with no knowledge of English identify with it.

Kustow followed Shakespeare around the world, but always he came back to Paris where, for 20 years, Peter Brook's international company has been diligently uncovering new layers of meaning in the plays. Brook's translator, JeanClaude Carriere, has worked zealously to find the closest interpretations possible, and he discussed the problems he encounters, particularly with puns. It was Carriere who described how, on a visit to China, he had bought a daily paper only to discover that the front-page news was a minor advance in Shakespeare studies. Even to the Chinese, Shakespeare is supreme.

Kustow's talks were fascinating: combining scholarship and accessibility, they left you awed and elated. But no sooner did the last one finish on Friday than an entirely different Bard was unwrapped. In imitation of immortality, Radio 3 presented a new play, Perry Pontac's Prince Lear, the prequel to a better-known masterpiece. In splendid iambic pentameter, the dreadful truth was revealed. Lear (John Moffatt, sounding uncannily like vintage Gielgud) is married to the false Eudoxia. When challenged with her infidelity, she slips into a stream, where she floats ``strengthlessly, singing sweet songs and strumming her wet lute'', until she drowns. At this, his impossibly ancient father also perishes, and the new King Lear proposes marriage to the dimpling Kent, whose ``manly chest is hung with bosoms pendulous'' - he is of course a damsel in disguise.

Pontac's verse is bliss. It combines bits of genuine Swan with glorious moorhens. He is particularly good on those lists of flowers that bedeck so many ``real'' plays: Pontac's include ``sweet marjoram, assertive eglantine, soft turtle-wort and silvery marrow-bilge, and that herb called Neptune's Folly by the Portuguese - most excellent in salads''. His play ends with the cunning Goneril persuading her father to divide his kingdom as the nobles assemble: ``Gloucester and Cornwall, Somerset and Essex, great Croydon, worthy Basildon, sweet Cheam.'' Not since the halcyon days of Sue Limb's Wordsmiths of Gorsemere have we heard such skilful parody.

Finally, news from the murky world of artificial insemination. The nobly named Daniel Mark Archer Hebden has arrived, born posthumously off-stage, via IVF, without any noisy or unseemly pangs, to Shula, loveliest and most fragrant of The Archers (R4). And early the next morning, Farming Today (R4) reported the very same thing happening to turkeys. Too big-breasted to copulate, male turkeys are ``milked'' for reproduction, raising the canard of sexual harassment in Norfolk. Oh Lord, does that mean the only PC way to celebrate Christmas is with macaroni cheese?

Comments