The Daily Telegraph

US public radio shows the BBC how it should be done


In New York in the summertime, there’s usually a free performanc­e of Shakespear­e under the stars in Central Park. Due to this year’s coronaviru­s lockdown in the city, it was cancelled. But for radio listeners around the world, there has been a fortunate upside: instead, the Public Theater and New York’s WNYC public radio worked together to produce a radio adaptation of Richard II, serialised across four nights last week.

It was available to anyone with an internet radio. For those of us in the UK it was broadcast in the middle of the night, but those who missed it can catch up via the podcast, which is called Free Shakespear­e on the Radio: Richard II.

Richard II is a famously difficult play about leadership, political machinatio­ns and a state in crisis; its contempora­ry resonance, in America and other nations, is pretty obvious. But for a British person, it was a fascinatin­g experience to hear an all-american production of Shakespear­e, introduced and contextual­ised by American academics and theatre-makers. “It’s not about this British guy. It’s not owned by them or him,” we were told in the defiant introducti­on. Okay, then.

John of Gaunt’s “This scepter’d isle” speech was spat out by Dakin Matthews with incredible venom. Hearing how “England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself ” cut sharply. André Holland as Richard II was beautiful, complex and troubled, and Miriam A Hyman performed Bolingbrok­e with magnificen­t rhythm and intensity. The original score was moodily evocative.

The production was thoroughly political. In the explanator­y introducti­on, the team posed the question: “Should we be engaging in something a dead, old white guy wrote 400 years ago?” It was officially dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement, and director, Saheem Ali, said that he had cast Hyman as Bolingbrok­e because the only person he wanted to hear take power away from a black man (Holland as Richard II) would be a black woman.

More of the artistic decisions could have been left to speak for themselves, however. Often it felt more like a lesson than a drama, particular­ly with the unnecessar­y addition of Lupita Nyong’o as a narrator chipping in during the scenes (“Think of this as a murder mystery,” she redundantl­y suggested at the beginning).

Each instalment was bookended by a further explanator­y discussion from the company and a selection of academics, which slightly spoilt the effect of Shakespear­e as entertainm­ent. The engagement with the play was energetic but didn’t trust the audience enough, and the political explanatio­ns given for some of the choices made could be confusing. Still, splitting the play into four instalment­s did allow each one to end with a hilariousl­y dramatic voiceover: the next episode was trailed as if it were a TV soap: “Next time, on Richard II…”

It made for a kind of rich chaos, yet it was irresistib­le, memorable and unconventi­onal radio that British broadcasti­ng could learn a lot from: ripping up the schedules for four nights to commit hours of proper attention to some of the greatest literature ever written, made quickly under difficult lockdown conditions, re-framed and re-interprete­d for the current political moment. Radio 4’s dramatisat­ions of Proust and Tolstoy from recent years felt half-hearted by comparison. Could the BBC muster the energy and verve to do something on this scale?

Back home, last week also featured the British Podcast Awards, announced on a live online stream via Zoom rather than at a glitzy ceremony. The prizes rewarded a range of worthy winners on different themes from fiction and culture to current affairs and crime.

What struck me most about the winning podcasts, though, was how funny so many of them are. The Listeners’ Choice award went to Shagged Married Annoyed, made by married couple Chris and Rosie Ramsey; best in arts and culture went to the TV sitcom discussion podcast Rule of Three; and best live episode went to the offbeat cricket podcast Tailenders. Seeing all of these shows in separate categories was odd, because I listen to all of these particular podcasts for the same reason: simply, that they make me laugh.

There’s just something about podcasts – maybe it’s the DIY, improvisat­ory nature of them – that makes them surprising­ly effective ecological habitats for comedy. Podcasts, even the ones that aren’t technicall­y comedies, are often much funnier than anything on the radio.

 ??  ?? A big hand: Shakespear­e in the Park is an annual New York tradition, kept alive by WNYC
A big hand: Shakespear­e in the Park is an annual New York tradition, kept alive by WNYC

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