The (ra­dio) play is the thing, writes Kate Chisholm

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay - The Mer­chant of Venice

How to stage Shake­speare on air and bring the text to life with­out the ben­e­fit of set, cos­tumes, chore­og­ra­phy and all the phys­i­cal busi­ness of a the­atri­cal per­for­mance?

That’s the ques­tion faced by drama direc­tors on ra­dio, and Emma Hard­ing in par­tic­u­lar, whose adap­ta­tion of The Mer­chant of Venice is be­ing streamed glob­ally. Up­dated to 2008, just as the fi­nan­cial crash was be­gin­ning to im­pact on in­di­vid­ual lives, the play opens with the pul­sat­ing beat of a track from the con­tem­po­rary charts (mu­sic and the odd bit of ad­di­tional di­a­logue be­ing the only way to in­di­cate set­ting).

For yes, shock hor­ror, in this ver­sion of the play An­to­nio and his mer­chant banker friends or­der lat­tes in a noisy cof­fee bar. The barista who serves them ad­dresses them by name to help us know who’s who. “Shake­speare doesn’t name-check enough for ra­dio,” says Hard­ing. And we be­gin not with An­to­nio say­ing “I know not why I am so sad” but with his curses on Shy­lock, the “cut-throat dog”.

Scenes have had to be cut to ac­com­mo­date the de­mands of the broad­cast sched­ule (the play runs for two straight hours). There are only five days to re­hearse and record the play (plus an ini­tial read-through with all the cast) and the ad­di­tional mu­sic was done in-house to keep the bud­get down. Hard­ing her­self wrote the mu­sic for “Tell me where is fancy bred” (sung by Kerry Good­er­son, who plays Nerissa).

Would she not pre­fer to work in the­atre? “I would love to,’’ says Hard­ing, who misses the “phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion” of drama and the time to ex­plore the text (cast and stage staff have six weeks of re­hearsal at the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany).

But on ra­dio “the in­ten­sity of the stu­dio de­liv­ers some­thing in­ter­est­ing”, she says, “and has an en­ergy all its own”. You have to find short­cuts to de­liv­er­ing the lines in a way that lis­ten­ers will fol­low and ab­sorb the poetry. “It’s all in the voice.”

Hard­ing spends a lot of time ab­sorb­ing the text so that once she gets to the stu­dio she has a clear set of ideas. Cast­ing, too, is cru­cial. Her ac­tors need to be able to “do the verse”, but also to have done enough homework to re­spond quickly to the pres­sure of per­form­ing with so lit­tle re­hearsal time. In the stu­dio they’ll have just five takes to get it right. And the drama is not recorded chrono­log­i­cally but chip-chopped ac­cord­ing to the ac­tors’ avail­abil­ity. “As long as the actor is com­pletely clear about what they are say­ing, the listener should pick up the mean­ing,” she says. But that is much more dif­fi­cult on air, with­out ges­ture, vis­ual cues, or move­ment. Not that record­ing is a static process. “Visi­tors to the record­ing stu­dio are of­ten sur­prised to see that we record on the move,” says Hard­ing. Ac­tors, too, of­ten come ex­pect­ing to stand be­hind the mi­cro­phone and read the lines as they would for the voice-overs in video games and ad­di­tional di­a­logue re­place­ment, where the sense of move­ment is edited in af­ter­wards via tech­ni­cal wiz­ardry. On ra­dio ev­ery­thing works much as it has al­ways done, and “you’re do­ing the sound for real”. In that open­ing scene, An­to­nio, Bas­sanio and the other mer­chants were walk­ing around in a cir­cle through the acous­tic stu­dio at Maida Vale as they spoke their lines, as if they were walk­ing from the cof­fee shop out on to the street and into the lift. “I hate walk­ing on the spot,” says Hard­ing. “It al­ways sounds like you’re walk­ing on the spot.” It takes a while for ac­tors to de­velop “a sense of the stereo pic­ture”. They have to “have that con­ver­sa­tion with each other but at the same time al­ways speak to the mi­cro­phone … It is a bit un­nat­u­ral.” But for most of them act­ing on ra­dio is “a lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence”. Any­one can play any­one, as long as their voice is right for the part. Shy­lock in this ver­sion is played by a much younger actor than usual (An­drew Scott), much the same in age as An­to­nio. At the end, Hard­ing has brought Shy­lock back (he has only five scenes and doesn’t usu­ally re­turn af­ter his de­par­ture from the court­room at the end of Act IV) to re­cite on his own the Chris­tian creed. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary, pain­ful end­ing, Scott ren­der­ing all his re­luc­tance and dis­com­fort through his voice alone. Hard­ing ex­plains that she needed to find some way to make up for the fact that she couldn’t phys­i­calise the way Shy­lock bows out from the court­room, jeered and spat at by the crowd. “I didn’t want the au­di­ence to for­get that cru­elty,” she says. at is avail­able as a pod­cast

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