WHERE live theatre loses, radio drama gains. One could hardly imagine in normal circumstances a David Mamet première in the Radio 4 weekday Drama slot. But playwrights must write, and Martin Jarvis’s production company, a frequent collaborator with Mamet, will not be complaining.
In The Christopher Boy’s Communion (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Mamet employs something like the terse poetry of another great radio dramatist, Harold Pinter. With the occasional stage direction reminding us — a kind of auditory proscenium arch — that this is mere fiction, Mamet’s play comprises a series of tight-knit dialogues, the swift exchanges one register away from realism.
People don’t converse like this. There is a fractured artificiality that immediately puts the listener on edge. Mamet gives us no exposition; and, if you avoid the BBC website’s over-eager blurb, you spend the opening scenes working hard to establish context.
A couple are discussing their son’s relationship with a Jewish girl. The boy has been accused of something terrible. The mother, a devout Roman Catholic, is determined to save him, at any cost. She discusses strategy with a lawyer, then with the priest. But only in her third encounter does she find a solution.
There is an authenticity and profundity to the theological discourse which is unusual, even if the finale feels more like the spiritual histrionics of Rosemary’s Baby grafted on to an episode of Tales of the Unexpected. But — to leave aside the narrative trajectory of this piece — Mamet demonstrates how, in writing drama for radio, less can mean a whole lot more.
As we crawl out of lockdown, we are perpetually reminded of the need to “follow the science” rather than the desires of our hearts. The fragility of the authority that such a distinction seeks to establish was neatly exemplified by Caitlin Benedict, when she asked a psychologist engaged in research into the biology of sexuality to comment “on a scientific and not on an emotional basis”. Since her documentary was titled Faith, Lies and Conversion Therapy (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), one felt that the polemical cat must already have exited the bag.
Debate over the introduction of legislation banning conversion therapy continues, but, rather than expand on the ten useful minutes devoted here to this challenging and highly nuanced discussion, Benedict chose to take us back to the dark ages: lobotomies, electro-convulsive treatment, and chemical castration.
To recruit the barbarities of the past to the present cause distorts argument, while serving also to reinforce the assumption that the past was populated by the bigoted and ignorant. We got a glimpse of a more nuanced view of the psychoanalytic attitude to sexuality in the discussion of Freud and his legacy; but this, too, was undermined by evoking the anachronous and etymologically confused terms homo- and trans- phobia.
As ever, it was with the testimonies of real people — including a gay man in his nineties, the Revd Stanley Underhill, who had endured various treatments as a young man, and came out only in his eighties (Features, 15 February 2019) — that the strength of this documentary lay. We needed neither the potted history of science, nor the men in white coats.