Arts: Hark at Lady Muck - giving Cleopatra the northern touch

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Northernness is a many-splendoured thing, and exactly what it means depends on how far south you're starting. The composer Piers Hellawell, who is presenting a new World Service series on northern music called Northern Lights, starts reckoning from the Outer Hebrides, where he lives and works (though, judging by his accent, he's a poncy southerner). So, for him, the chief feature of the northern condition is a purer relationship with nature: solitude, stark skies, unbounded elements, silence - these strip away the barriers we place between ourselves and the encircling world.

The tone for the first programme, broadcast on Saturday, was set by the framing music: the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus, a piece which, for once, deserves the epithet "haunting". The most striking feature of the work is the way it uses taped birdsong in place of a choir - mournful whoops, like a curlew, provided the foundation for bleak, open chords on strings. Rautavaaraconfirmed the notion, implicit in the music, that northernness is a philosophical condition: listening to the music of his Finnish colleagues, he imagines a Finnish farmer sitting outside his sauna by a lake, thinking deep thoughts, and saying two or three words he would never normally utter.

This was touching. But it was hard not to feel that other, less poetically attractive aspects of northernness were being glossed over. (For instance, I couldn't help noticing that Rautavaara's first name, pronounced something like "I know you honey", sounds just like a line from an Abba record.)

And the issue was confused when Peter Maxwell Davies, speaking from his Orcadian fastness, started to talk about the qualities of northern England - "In the North they'll tell you if they think you're a fool." There are qualities which the north of England and the Nordic world would both lay claim to (including hardihood, bluntness of speech and the ability to hold large quantities of liquor); but they are very different things.

The difference was illustrated by Northern Broadsides' production of Antony and Cleopatra (Radio 3, Sunday). This was performed in what Barrie Rutter terms "the Northern voice". For a while, I toyed with the idea that the Romans were stiff-necked Yorkshiremen, the Egyptians wily Lancastrians, but in fact both sides were a mixed bunch. In a northern voice, the exotic intimacy of Cleopatra's court became a bit of a natter at the hairdresser's, while dialogue between rulers and servants seemed to acquire a bizarrely aggressive edge. Cleopatra's handmaiden Charmian, as played by Julie Livesey, had echoes of Caroline Aherne's check-out girl in The Fast Show ("Ooh, ribbed condoms - very considerate"): "Give me to drink mandragora," Cleopatra tells Charmian. "Why, madam?" she demands, with obvious disapproval ("Hark at Lady Muck").

Bear in mind I write as a genetically pure Yorkshireman. The intonations of the urban north of England are adapted to convey deflation, irony, challenge. And this northernness didn't diminish the production. It wasn't the most moving Antony and Cleopatra, but it constantly opened new ways of reading relationships, fresh ways of hearing lines. How many productions of Shakespeare do that?

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