NEW CD RELEASE, July 2012
Stoppard began with two fifteen-minute plays included in the "Just Before Midnight" series of short late-night plays that ran for three months in 1964. THE DISSOLUTION OF DOMINIC BOOT charts swiftly bu decisively the progressive demoralisation of its wretched protagonist through a series of disastrous encounters: he ends in the rain, in tears and pyjamas. M IS FOR MOON AMONG OTHER THINGS is a duologue for a husband and wife whose thoughts interlock with their speeches. Among the 'other things' are the M to N section of an encyclopaedia and the film star Marilyn Munroe, whose death is reported in the course of the play.
IF YOU'RE GLAD, I'LL BE FRANK followed in 1966, a surreal farce in which the voice of the speaking clock becomes human and runs out of control. Timothy West plays Frank, a dogged naval officer who has recognised the voice as that of his wife Gladys. He embarks on a frantic mission to rescue her from the toils of the Post Office and the tyranny of the 'third stroke' (at which the time will be ...').
In ALBERT'S BRIDGE (1967), John Hurt plays Albert, who spends much of the time obsessively painting the railway bridge over Clufton Bay. The bridge comes to possess his mind, to the detriment of other areas of his life: the monotonous routine of painting both enslaves and liberates him. The play won two prizes and was often repeated. Paul Copley played the lead in a later production.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? (1971) takes a cynical view of an old boys' reunion, with Timothy West, again, and Carleton Hobbs in splendid form as a waspish old schoolmaster. John Wood plays the querulous outsider who proves, after all, not to have attended this particular alma mater. Hobbs also figures in ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE (1972), as one of three elderly artists united by lifelong friendship and some sort of collective guilt regarding the death of a blind woman, a contemporary whom they had befriended in their youth. Now one of their number has died, having fallen mysteriously to his death from an upstairs landing. The plays spins a complicated web of character and incident, at once enigmatic and playful, with much to tease the listener. Like much of Stoppard's work, it rewards careful listening.
THE DOG IT WAS THAT DIED was broadcast in 1982 and was available for a time as a commercial BBC tape. It's a very funny play in which a disenchanted spy seeks to escape from his work with Intelligence by committing suicide. Dinsdale Landen plays him beautifully, and the exceptional cast includes Charles Gray as the smoothie from Q6; Penelope Keith as his horsey wife; Kenneth Cranham as the sad spy in the mackintosh; Maurice Denham as the Chief, all pipe and pomposity; and John le Mesurier, Stephen Murray and Betty Marsden as assorted inmates of a "funny farm" on the east coast.
Stoppard's most recent original play for radio is also his most substantial: IN THE NATIVE STATE, first broadcast in 1991. It is far and away his most significant achievement for the medium. He went on to adapt it for the stage with the new title INDIAN INK. The action alternates between the India of 1930 and the England of 1990, with two sisters and a father and son as protagonists. Felicity Kendal plays Flora Crowe, a gifted poet visiting India, where she has her portrait painted by a local artist (and where she dies prematurely). Sixty years later, in London, the artist's son visits Flora's younger sister, now an elderly woman, played with her usual command by Peggy Ashcroft. The play advances on these two fronts, combining the actual and the retrospective, each continually casting light on the other. The method is oblique, allowing the truth to emerge only gradually: we share in the young man's quest, as the past resonates through the present.
Several of Stoppard's stage plays have had radio productions, including his first, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, originally performed by the National theatre. This is the famous play in which the action of HAMLET takes place largely off-stage, while the Prince's hapless school friends twiddle their thumbs and toss coins to pass the time. It was broadcast in 1978 with Edward Petherbridge as Guildenstern, repeating his stage performance for the National. Freddie Jones delivers the part of the Player King with appropriate relish.
THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND, broadcast in 1979, offers a Stoppardian spoof of a traditional detective story, with a fogbound country house, an escaped homicidal lunatic and a bovine police officer with a sharper subordinate. The action is observed, as a play within the play, by two theatre critics, who lose their detachment as they too become involved in events of mounting extravagance and absurdity. NIGHT AND DAY was produced by the World Service in 1990 and later given on Radio 3. It is a savage, controlled pice, set in a troubled African state, where ambitious journalists vie for a scoop. The press is represented by a photographer and two foreign correspondents, none of whom fares particularly well (and one of them dies). Their trade comes under continued attack, chiefly from the wife of the resident mining engineer, who has been a victim of tabloid persecution. The defence is advanced by an idealistic young journalist as the price we have to pay for larger freedom. Between them lies the inescapable fact that information is necessary to a free society and that no tabloid excess is worse than its suppression. The play is powerfully and eloquently argued and it confronts the violence to which foreign correspondents undoubtedly succumb on occasion. It also gives penelope Wilton a wonderful part, written with considerable humour in a clever, cynical vein. Bored, bright, bitter and easily tempted by an attractive man, she even shares her thoughts with us. The actress plays her to the hilt, relishing every word.
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, BROADCAST IN 1991, is Stoppard's version of an original bythe Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler (DER WEITE LAND). It's a polished, cynical play, set within a rigorously formal society, with codes that may not be violated with impunity. As often in such a context, it's the young and naive who truly suffer. Maureen O'Brien plays the maddening womanat the centre of the action in rather too breathless a style - a little of her gasping intensity goes a long way. Ronald Pickup brings his familiar distinction to the role of her implacable husband.
THE REAL THING, broadcast in 1992, caused concern among Stoppard's admirers when first staged in London but came into its own when revived fairly recently at the Donmar, where, in the old phrase, it took the town. It's a play about the nature of love - its fulfilment, its loss, its betrayal. The opening scene is illusive, in that it proves to be part of a play withing the play, launching the theme of adultery, but in a deceptive context. The rest is real life, in which adultery leads to cancelled marriages and new spouses for all four protagonists, two of whom marry each other. Their marriage becomes the focus of attention thereafter: it survives despite the activities of the wayward wife, who engages emotionally with all four men in the play. Emily Richard does her beautifully and Clive Francis carries with great assurance the long and demanding part of her amazingly articulate second husband.
ARCADIA is Stoppard's acknowledged masterpiece, a scintillating play in which - as in IN THE NATIVE STATE - present day researchers seek to find the truth about people and events from a former time - in this case, about 200 years earlier.It was broadcast by Radio 3 in the year of its first performance at the National theatre, 1993. The action displays both past and present, opening in 1808 before switching to the 1990s. The listener learns the truth of both eras, but, predictably, the modern researchers construct a false picture of the past, which gathers sufficient momentum to displace the true one. Most of the characters are exceptionally intelligent and erudite and their dialogue matches - indeed, defines - their intellectual stature. David Benedictus' production has the same cast as that of the National's staging: Felicity Kendal, Bill Nighy and Samuel West as the moderns, and Rufus Sewell, Emma Fielding and Harriet Walter as the 19th century georgians. All are predictably excellent, especially Harriet Walter as the bird-brained, opinionated mother and Emma Fielding as her gifted, doomed daughter.
THE INVENTION OF LOVE was broadcast in 1999, again not long after its National Theatre production. It's a moving play about A.E.Housman with lots of jokes to heighten one's pleasure. John Wood repeated for radio his dazzling stage performance as the older Housman, newly dead, but still impressively articulate as he reviews his life and even encounters his younger self. The younger man is impeccably played by Ben Porter, driven inexorably into himself by a misplaced, unrequited love.
Tom Stoppard's combination of wit, eloquence, high spirits and high seriousness is entirely irresistible, as many have found in theatres throughout the world. Even his slightest work for radio embodies his qualities and at its best it stands with his best.
Barry Pike, copyright.
Many thanks, Barry, for this excellent and
comprehensive review of Stoppard's work.
BBC WS Meridian interview with Tom Stoppard: http://worldservice.prototyping.bbc.co.uk/programmes/XO269320
BBC RADIO BROADCASTS
2016 Artist Descending A Staircase, new production
2013 The Dark Side of the Moon (R2)
2007 Rock 'n' Roll (R3)
2007 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (R3), re-make
2007 Albert's Bridge, re-make
1999 The invention of love (R3)
1995(?) Separate Piece
1994 Three men in a boat, dram
1991 In the native state
1990 M is for Moon
1990 The dissolution of Dominic Boot
1990 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (R3)
1988 Where are they now?
1985 The real Inspector Hound
1983 The Dog It Was That Died (aft) r.1990
1979 The Real Inspector Hound (aft)
1979 Professional Foul (aft), r.1990
1978 Albert's Bridge (aft)
1973 Albert's Bridge (aft)
1972 Artist descending a staircase
1971 Albert's Bridge (aft)
1968 Albert's Bridge (aft)
1966 If you're glad I'll be frank
nk Enter a free man
Compiled from info. from R.Bickerton, B.Pike, Graham Nelson, and own collection. Most of the above recordings in vrpcc collections.
NOTES ON SOME OF THE PLAYS
IF YOU'RE GLAD I'LL BE FRANK....1966
The play was written specifically for radio and was first broadcast in November 1972 on radio 3. It's set in 1972, and the dead body of an artist, Donner, is found at the foot of the stairs to the attic studio he shared with two fellow artists: Beauchamp and Martello. The three have lived with each other for fifty years. The play uses a curious device; it tracks back in time in each scene, using younger actors where necessary, until the pivotal moment in 1914; then it comes forward again to 1972. The artists are opinionated, deluded and self-important; the only person who can see what they are really like is Sophie, and she is blind.
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