Behind the scenes with Will

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On the afternoon of 7 February 1601 a special performance of Richard II was put on at the Globe theatre. The play, with its dangerously revolutionary message that a tyrant who encourages favourites can be toppled, had not been seen for years. Its unexpected revival alerted the Queen's party to what was, indeed, to follow: the abortive rebellion of the Earl of Essex and his subsequent execution. Don Taylor's Monday Play, Merely Players (R4), imagined what might have happened when Shakespeare and the Burbage brothers had to decide whether there was more danger in staging the play than in refusing the request of the still powerful Earl. It was masterly.

The background story is indisputable fact, but Taylor wove into it seductive theories about Shakespeare's own state of mind. Deftly underplayed by Michael Pennington, he was heard in amorous dalliance with his Dark Lady (an incredibly sexy Frances Barber), described by the foppish Earl of Southampton as a half-caste Papist bitch. Unnamed, of course, she teased and taunted her "old balding boy", bewitching him with her learning, her brutal frankness and her unorthodox beauty. She was Sonnet 130 brought to husky life. Her hair was wiry and dark, she said, because her grandmother had been a Venetian who took an African mercenary as her lover. No wonder Shakespeare had left his sad wife and his pretty young aristocrats for her exotic charms.

In a month which sees articles proposing that Shakespeare was himself a covert Catholic, and a book (Susan Doran's Monarchy and Matrimony) detailing the significance of masques and drama in Elizabethan politics, this play had lucky topicality. But more satisfying than that were the many sly references to Shakespeare's other works: Othello and the Sonnets, obviously, and plays yet to come. Margaret Tyzack, alarming as the neurotic old Queen ("Call me Betty"), stabs wildly at an arras, for example, and the playwright begins to plan a tragedy set in Denmark: that way, nobody could subject it to political interpretation. Of course not. The story itself, full of subtle characterisation, dramatic tension and nervous energy as the players awaited their fate, was happily free of quaint verbal archaisms: historical radio drama at its best.

In a fine cast, the shadowy figure of Cuthbert Burbage was played with panache by Nigel Anthony. By chance, Anthony's wife, Kate Binchy, could also be heard this week, talking to Jenni Mills about her novelist cousin Maeve in Relatively Speaking (R4). They grew up 10 miles and two years apart, daughters of Dublin lawyers, and have always been friends, endearingly proud of each other. Their shared memories only differ as to what they fed the elephant at the zoo. Maeve said buns; Kate, more convincingly, potatoes. It was reassuring to hear them speak of the happiness and security of their family, especially when most radio-verite focuses on depressingly dysfunctional relationships.

Another strong family are the Stewarts of Blair. Until Doomsday in the Afternoon (R2) was the answer given by Belle Stewart when asked how long travellers could continue to exist. Though Belle is pushing 90 now, she and her daughters could be heard singing their fine, tough folk music at a ceilidh in Perthshire. Sheena Wellington, the presenter, greeted her with a compliment on her hairdo: "Another wave and I'd droon" was the laconic reply. The unaccompanied songs dealt with the rigours of travelling life, liberally sprinkled with romantic moments in the heather and performed with a spirit of fire and passion. Learning to harness this spirit is easy, apparently, like potty-training. A Stewart daughter gives master- classes in the art: they must be challenging.

More unaccompanied singing came from Maddy Prior In Good Voice (R2). A cappella is the name of this style, but many of the songs came from a broader church. Most impressive was a piece from some Swedish singers called The Real Group. Eat your heart out, Abba, this sophisticated bunch can not only sing in close harmony but can also, eerily, mimic brazen trumpets.

I'm sorry about today's column. Critics are expected to carp and grumble - and often that is all too easy - but it's been a bumper week. The Kaleidoscope Feature was Seamus Heaney on Air (R4) - and on everything else that matters. If Mozart could pluck perfect tunes from nowhere, Heaney is the Mozart of words. It was easy to understand why Kate Kellaway, interviewing him, sounded so thrilled.

Kellaway suggested that there is a real theme of survival in his work, a sense that we must praise things that have endured. He agreed, adding that the rock-bottom quality of the species is to hold the line until some form of renewal occurs, even at the burnt-out level, the bottom layer of Troy. On poetry, he said that someone like Wilfred Owen has earnt every word: his voice is the melody of endured sorrow. For himself, he aimed towards the "proffered reality of musically transported truth". Yes - aims, and hits the mark every time. A line from his latest collection, The Spirit Level, defines his technique: it is to "catch the heart off- guard, blow it open".

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