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Radio review: Emperor and Galilean, Requiem, and The Briefing Room

14 July 2023


Henrik Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean was adapted for Drama on 3 (Radio 3, 2 and 9 July)

Henrik Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean was adapted for Drama on 3 (Radio 3, 2 and 9 July)

GREAT artists rarely get to choose which of their works will be considered by others as great. For Henrik Ibsen, posterity has fêted A Doll’s House and several other intimate realist dramas. But, in Ibsen’s own view, the great work was Emperor and Galilean: an epic so immense that it comes in two, five-act plays. As a worthy, if commercially daring, gesture of support for Ibsen’s opinion, the National Theatre produced a version for the stage in 2011. Radio 3 has finally brought this production to the airwaves in Drama on 3 (2 and 9 July).

In Ben Power’s comparatively racy stage adaptation, the philosophical musings about freedom and the State, and about piety and intellectual honesty, are deftly woven into a narrative that whips along with something of the dramatic thrust of I, Claudius. Julian is neither the self-indulgently introspective philosopher-emperor of caricature, nor the emancipated humanist hero that a secular 21st-century audience might like him to be. Power manages to keep his character, and thus our sympathy for him, pivoting throughout; and he has done a great service by bringing this first English version to the airwaves.

In among the philosophical discourse, you do not hear a great deal about the nuts and bolts of faith, either here or in Drama on 4: Requiem (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), an offering by the directors Misia Butler and Harrison Knights. The story here is of a “junior priest”, Paul, and his outreach work with AIDS sufferers in the 1980s. Paul’s attempts to engage, through his Care and Education Centre, are finally rewarded when he teams up with a member of the gay community; and it is on the antagonism and acceptance of these two characters that the drama is based.

The character is based on Knights’s father, who offered holy communion to AIDS sufferers in the early years, when others remained anxious or intolerant. The latter is represented here in the form of a churchwarden who bans the Centre from operating in the church hall.

Much of this is standard Afternoon Play fare; and Paul might have been any old social worker for all the theology that he dispensed. Yet there was an authenticity to the writing, especially involving the two central characters, which raised this above the average, helped by a beautifully composed and executed choral score by Oscar Osicki.

Recent events in Jenin have reminded us that, 30 years since the Oslo Accords, the Israeli-Palestine peace process remains an ambition only. And, in The Briefing Room (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), during which David Aaronovitch consulted four experts in succession, it became clear that the ambition is by no means shared across the various parties.

While many Palestinians don’t feel affiliated to any high-level strategy of negotiation, Israelis may justifiably regard the threats of alienation from international trade as having proved empty. The question for both sides is, What’s in it for them?

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