Radio: Ferry 'cross the Nile, helmed by Cleopatra

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Tallulah Bankhead played Cleopatra in the 1930s, a New York critic said that she'd barged down the Nile and sunk. If Ishia Bennison, in the same role, had been proffered the burnished barge, she'd have lugged it along the river from the towpath. She was a gritty, fierce Cleopatra; Antony must have gone back to her only because he was scared stiff. When his desperation made him shout, "The witch shall die!" I realised that she was in the wrong play: she belonged in Macbeth.

The Northern Broadsides Theatre Company's Antony and Cleopatra (R3), produced by Kate Rowland, follows their very successful Richard III. Voices originating from the Mersey, the Humber and the Tyne spoke the verse with urgency and pace, but the truncated text included extra lines I couldn't find in my edition, like "'Ave ye done, yet?" The effect of all this - like the impact of the Mysteries cycle - was to give the play a sense of contemporary immediacy. But the sensuousness of the Egyptian court, the infinite variety of Egypt's queen and her musky, sexy, alluring grandeur were definitely absent. This serpent of the old Nile was exclusively, as the exasperated Antony declares, "a right gypsy that art fast and loose".

And yet, and yet ... Barrie Rutter's Antony and, even more, Dave Hill's Enobarbus were magnificent; the battles were tremendous; Conrad Nelson's music, accompanying the debauchery on board Pompey's galley went from a wild, Grappelli-style violin to an astonishing clog-dance - and besides, the very fact that R3 gives more than two hours to such brave endeavour is cause for rejoicing.

Recently R3's controller, Nicholas Kenyon, announced his plans for streamlining his station. He is, he said, committed to its spoken-word output and specifically to the Sunday play. Now that R4 is promising no more long drama, we should cherish this promise.

Monday night combined words and music in a tribute to Sir Isaiah Berlin: the Historian of Ideas (R3) - and another hooray that the schedule is flexible enough to admit such an evening, only a month after Berlin's death. Humphrey Carpenter introduced some of the music Berlin loved and examples of his lecturing style. It was Alistair Cooke who said that "he must now be enlightening the angels, if they can understand 700 words per minute" - an excusable exaggeration when you discover that Berlin was, literally, timed at 400 wpm. One woman who sat next to him at dinner came away dazed: "I'm sure he's very nice but I don't understand Russian."

Berlin enjoyed walking the hills, listening to Schubert on his Walkman - an interesting sight in beret and shorts. However, an old friend of his said that he was impervious to physical beauty, in women or landscape. She lived in a beautiful part of Cornwall but when he came to stay and was presented with this glamorous view (of Cornwall, we assume), his only comment was "how I hate nature".

Still, it was impossible to dislike him, especially when you heard him describing the direct moral effect of a Beethoven string quartet, or listened to his dazzling lecture on Romanticism: "a half-mad doctrine which leads to liberalism, toleration, decency and an appreciation of the unpredictability of human activities - aiming at one thing, they achieve its exact opposite". At least I think that's what he said: he did talk very fast.

But R3 is principally important for its music. As long as Kenyon is in charge, there are grounds for optimism on this score. His evident passion for new, live and specialist music has to co-exist with the demands of his audience for the more familiar. His eminently sensible plan is to make his network more user-friendly so that we all know what to expect, depending on the time of day. He is to give Joan Bakewell a regular spot alongside Richard Baker (back from Classic FM) and a blinking Donald Macleod released from his successful Through the Night. My only quibble so far is the lack of newer, younger voices - Andrew MacGregor and Susan Sharpe, for example, would repay more exposure - but there must be others out there besides Tommy Pearson who can talk brightly about music despite being short in the tooth.

Musical gems on R3 this week included Vintage Years with Hugues Cuenod, 95, who worked with Poulenc and Debussy and was still recording in his eighties. He put his longevity down to secret egotism and a disarmingly sensible preference for staying away from anything miserable if he could do nothing about it: "It's easier not to suffer, for one's comfort," he said, cheerily.

Heinrich Heine did suffer, and how. Always an outcast, he spent the last eight years of his short life in bed with spinal paralysis, but his posthumous reward was to have his poems set to music by more composers than anyone save the Biblical psalmist. Susan Sharpe introduced a varied bicentennial selection of his German-speaking setters in Voices (R3) - non-Germans follow next week.

Now, a mention of another kind of music, from The Prohibition Years (R2). George Melly was born to introduce this; he sounds as if he lived through it all, and enjoyed whisky hidden in a boot-leg - not the bogus stuff made by moonshine (analysing this, a chemist assumed "your horse has diabetes") but the real McCoy, smuggled in by Captain McCoy himself and celebrated in jazz thick with smoke and reeking of hooch. Tremendous.

Back to R3 for an unexpected moment of sheer delight, when I heard the BBC Philharmonic playing some bewitching music by Peter Maxwell Davies on Tuesday night. By serendipity, I'd just heard him talk about his work on Northern Lights (WS), Piers Hallawell's excellent wintry series about music from the top of the world, where the elemental power of sea crashing on rock and volcanic lava surging skywards against the lingering drama of sunset inspires those who live and write in the far north.

And besides, said Maxwell Davies, there's a down-to-earthness, a straight- forwardness about people from the north: "They'll tell you if they think you're a fool". Yes, that's grand, and gradely - though it's not, precisely, how I'd imagined Cleopatra.

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