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Radio review: Four Sides of Seamus Heaney, Book at Bedtime: Death of a Naturalist, Drama: Mahabharata Now, and Point of View

08 September 2023


The Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney, who was profiled in Four Sides of Seamus Heaney (Radio 4, Sundays)

The Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney, who was profiled in Four Sides of Seamus Heaney (Radio 4, Sundays)

DURING the Maze Prison hunger strikes, Seamus Heaney was approached by a spokesman for the IRA. “When . . . are you going to write something for us?” the man demanded, as recounted in Heaney’s poem “The Flight Path”. Heaney replied that, whatever he wrote, he wrote for himself. And therein lies the fascination for Heaney fans then, and now, ten years after his death.

As we heard in the four outstanding literary documentaries that constituted Four Sides of Seamus Heaney (Radio 4, Sundays), Heaney was not a poet of the Troubles in any conventional sense, just as he was never a conventional love poet or translator. The collection North delighted and irritated for its mythologising of national violence, while Field Work took a still more nuanced view of events. Heaney was by then comfortably ensconced in County Wicklow, far from the Belfast of his early career.

For those with the time only to sample this series, head for the episode “Love”, presented by Heaney’s daughter and featuring informal conversations between her and her mother, Marie. We are given here the opportunity to compare prosaic anecdote with poeticised legend. Sentiment never topples into the sentimental. Love for Heaney is as pewter, not silver; and even the kite that is flown by the brothers Michael and Christopher as a mirror of their lightness of spirit draws behind it a tail of grief.

Unfortunately, in the late-night recitations from Book at Bedtime: Death of a Naturalist which complemented this series (Radio 4, weekdays last week), we experienced more of the tail than the kite. Overly ponderous, the pacing of the 15-minute episodes had an enervating effect. Reverence for every word can do that to even the greatest poetry.

In contrast, one could not pitch the accusation of stultifying reverence at Drama: Mahabharata Now (Radio 4, Saturday, repeat). Knowing the original only by reputation, Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle have adapted the Sanskrit epic in a way that results in a thoroughly engaging romp, in which family rivalries are complicated by divine interference.

The original is translated to contemporary Mumbai, where the future of Hasta Enterprises is fought over by two cousins, supported by Machiavellian matriarchs and jealous gods. There is at least one more episode to come (perhaps the producers can be encouraged to continue?), but, when we left it, all was dependent on a roll of the dice. And, in this particular cosmos, dice do not produce random outcomes.

Of recent contributions to Point of View (Radio 4, Friday), that of Will Self last week has been one of the most entertaining, if not necessarily the most coherent. As he lays into the pretensions and self-indulgence of the phenomenon of “the bucket list”, you cannot but thrill to his sneering fricatives and contemptuous plosives. Never has the word “Barbie” carried such vicious, viral load.

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