The week in radio: Tom Stoppard shines as he tackles the dark side of the tunes


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The Independent Culture

You only needed to watch the animated trailer for Darkside – that's right, a trailer, with images, for radio. What madness is this? – to know it was going to be totally off its box. A toy farmer stood staring at the skies; giant angle grinders sliced up the earth; a figure sat on a hospital bed with a massive propeller where his head should be.

For Radio 2, Darkside, a play written by Tom Stoppard to mark the 40th anniversary of the Pink Floyd LP The Dark Side of the Moon, was what you might call An Event. Which is a good thing since Radio 2 has been short of them lately, unless you include Vanessa Feltz bellowing requests at rude-o'clock in the morning to tweet pictures of your favourite socks.

Yes, Radio 2 certainly seemed an odd place to find Stoppard's drama which, in honour of the album that inspired it, seemed intent on messing with our heads. Few could have been surprised if half the station's listeners, expecting to hear Big Band Special, had been found the following morning rocking back and forth in their pyjamas and gibbering about witches, jugglers and the end of days.

My own brain began to unravel early with The Boy's declaration, "I don't have a name. I was a thought experiment. Except I felt my heart beating." (The Boy, by the way, was dead, having been run over by a train, but somehow he was still able to ponder philosophical conundrums) though it really started to come apart during a subsequent conversation about whether a man juggling on the radio can truly exist.

"There's a juggler on the radio," noted The Boy. "He sounds exactly the same as if there's no juggler. There's lots of people listening to the radio and some are saying, 'I believe in the juggler' and some are saying, 'There is no juggler.' And there's a few philosopher-type people saying, 'How is there a juggler you can't hear or see or smell or touch different to no juggler?'" And so on.

If Darkside was catnip to sci-fi lovers and Floyd bores, it was also a film nerd's paradise with nods to Casablanca, North by Northwest, Spartacus and, yes, The Wizard of Oz – "Toto," said The Fat Man, "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." The latter remark was just one of Stoppard's gifts to the legions of acid-addled Floyd fans who insist that The Dark Side of the Moon was composed to be played in sync with The Wizard of Oz.

It's safe to say that Darkside wasn't your usual Monday-night listening, and though, with its wilfully impressionistic narrative, it could be infuriating, it had moments of undoubted profundity. Along with the Boy (Iwan Rheon), it centred on a philosophy student named Emily McCoy (Amaka Okafor) who could hear voices in the air and who was on a quest to seek out the Wise One to discover the Secret of Life. "What is The Good?" asked Emily as she grappled with moral dilemmas (if a plane is going down and there's only one parachute, whom should you save?) and wondered what it is to be human.

Amid the apocalyptic doom-mongering, Stoppard seemed to offer us a broadly optimistic view of humanity. "We can save the Earth from turning to dust and bones, from fire and flood," said Emily. "You can't save it for yourself but you can save it for others… We are natural born to kindness." Even so, his drama raised more questions than it answered, both about nature itself and the nature of humankind. As for the Secret of Life, I've listened three times now and I'm still none the bloody wiser.