The week in Radio: There's still no place like Homer
Sunday 06 December 1998
Anyone who doubts the right of Radio 3 to exist - low listening figures, large budget, elitist agenda - should be locked in a darkened room for an afternoon with tapes of Troy. He will emerge sadder, wiser and in a state of cathartic enchantment, for Jeremy Mortimer's production of Andrew Rissik's trilogy is probably the greatest radio drama he could ever hear.
In these plays, passionate love, bloody revenge and furious argument with the whimsical gods are expressed in language that is spare, poetic, beautiful. Now and again it zooms forward into our century - as when Hecabe complains that her baby son Hector would be less inhibited if his father spent more time with him, or when "his arse". Sometimes it slips into the sonorous rhythms of iambic pentameter: "Should I pretend to have no mind, no thoughts, for fear of hurting or offending you?" More often, it reaches for elemental imagery - when Helen remembers making love to Paris in an open boat during a tempest, while "god-light arched across the bay and the clouds split open", or the grieving Andromache longs for quietus: "For me, death will be like the moment when at last the storm blows itself out, and the sky clears, and the light is clean."
But words on the page are only half the story. This production was broad and spacious, uncluttered by effects - save for a wave washing on the shore as Achilles broods, or the wind forcing itself through cracks in Agamemnon's palace. And besides, you had to hear Emma Fielding's whispering, tragic Andromache, or Paul Scofield's lofty, wise, world-weary Hermes, or Julian Glover's dignified, heart-broken Priam, gazing at the mangled body of his son. "This it is to father children," he says quietly; "to love them without reservation, to keep them at the centre of every thought, and then to see them lying in the earth before their time. Can anything survive?" Distant thunder rumbles and a woman, far away, keens in harsh anguish. In the end, lovely Helen, the excuse for it all, lives on, disfigured, into old age and the mighty, belligerent cities, beggared and depopulated by decades of warfare, return to sand. "Legends," says Hermes "are like dreams: they tell us what we need to know."
The wheel turns and humanity moves on. Troy fell on Sunday night. By midday on Monday, R3 was in the Wigmore Hall for another high spot, one of the best of its excellent Lunchtime Concerts. The American mezzo Lorraine Hunt was making her London debut, with songs by Handel, Mahler and her compatriot, Peter Lieberson. She was accompanied by that most sensitive pianist Roger Vignoles, true heir to Gerald Moore.
It was spell-binding. For a start, Hunt's technique is as reliable as gravity. It was as if the mastery of singing were as inconsequential an achievement as riding a bike. She used that effortless voice to draw her audience, without any sense of artifice, into collusion with herself. By some intangible alchemy - perhaps by the intensity of her concentration - the listener became personally involved in the performance. This was particularly true of the Mahler - indeed, you couldn't imagine anybody giving a better performance of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen".
A change of gear now, from the sublime to Radio 1. The first part of The Exodus Story came during Monday's Lamacq Live. It had nothing to do with Moses. The Exodus Collective is a group of young Luton-dwellers. They are proud: "We are the bods: our mums and dads work down the bloody Electrolux. We're right within the centre of the grans and mums and aunties, and that makes us powerful". They stage free, unlicensed parties in rural Bedfordshire - the sort of thing that used to be called a rave. They meet in an industrial estate at midnight and wait to be told where to go- a woodland clearing, a disused quarry, that sort of place.
The style of this feature was restless and edgy. "Car stereos keep expectant dancers moving" (is that wise?), while police helicopters "strafe them with blinding searchlights". But why all this tense confrontation? Could it, just possibly, have anything to with Ecstasy? The word wasn't mentioned, though a hard line was taken against crack cocaine. And there were other unanswered questions. If it's all free and non-commercial, who pays for the quasi-military fleet of heavy vehicles leading the Exodus? And for House, the "petrol-soaked personality" who maintains them? Will all be revealed next week?
Finally, hooray and hallelujah: I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (R4) is back, from Glasgow, with Fred Macauley as a fine new recruit. In case you missed it, here are a couple of Humph highlights:
"Today, nostalgic Glaswegians pay good money to spend whole days enjoying the static display of Victorian rolling-stock known as Virgin Rail."
And a list of suggested hospital reading: The Chronicles of Hernia; Dial M for Matron; Madame Ovary; Thunderbowel; Lady Chatterley's Liver; Goodbye Mr Hips; Fatal Traction; Great Expectorations - and anything with an appendix.
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