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Radio review: The Essay: Watching from the wings, Love’s Growth, and Beyond All Repair

19 April 2024


In The Essay: Watching from the wings (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), Michael Goldfarb analysed the charisma of Sir John Gielgud, pictured here performing in Bingo by Edward Bond at the Royal Court in 1974

In The Essay: Watching from the wings (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), Michael Goldfarb analysed the charisma of Sir John Gielgud, pictured here perf...

THE indignities that the aspiring actor must endure are legion; but, even so, you might justifiably complain about being upstaged by a giant Styrofoam mountain. The tale is told by Michael Goldfarb in last week’s series of The Essay: Watching from the wings (Radio 3, Monday to Friday of last week).

Before he made it as a journalist, critic, and broadcaster, Goldfarb trod the boards — or, on this occasion, scaled a massive replica of K2, all the while baking under the stage lights and breathing in choking quantities of plastic snow; for this was a play in which the actors were the props. It was the mountain that sold tickets, and it was the mountain that enjoyed a Broadway transfer, while the actors were left behind.

Were this a series comprising only thespian anecdotes, it would have been entertaining enough; but Goldfarb is an insightful analyst and historian of theatrical tradition, and his discussions of the American relationship with Shakespeare (Monday) and of the charisma of Sir John Gielgud (Thursday) are particularly good. His formative years were those when Peter Brook, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Littlewood were pulling theatre in multiple, intriguing directions: a time of visionary creativity. And yet, as he constantly reminds us, the motivation of even the most idealistic wannabe actor must inevitably be the pay cheque.

Spring brings to a young man’s heart thoughts of love and taxes. At least, this appears to be the message of Love’s Growth (Radio 4, Saturday, repeated from Easter Week), John Donne’s playful, saucy poem, written to his lover Anne More, and here given a thorough going-over by Michael Symmons Roberts and guests. In the unlikely event that this poem makes it on to the A-level syllabus, this programme would make an excellent commentary; but it offers to those of us under no such obligations an encouragement to encounter the young and mischievous Donne as he was before the Holy Sonnets.

The surprise here is that Donne manages to offend even those — like one of the guests, Sir Simon Schama — who revel in the notion of Donne the rebel; for, in the final lines of the poem, he turns from priapic imagery to that of the tax-collector raising revenues for a military campaign. It’s as if, into the middle of an erotic dream, your accountant appears.

It is ten years now since the True Crime podcast genre was born, with the compulsive listening experience that is Serial. Since then, the formula has become worn, even if the crimes investigated remain refreshingly ghastly and bizarre. Yet there is something about Beyond All Repair (WBUR and ZSP Media, released Thursdays) which manages to defy the template — in particular, the lengthy personal engagements between the reporter, Amory Sivertson, and the long list of characters. We get a host of voices telling their version of a murder that happened more than 20 years ago. All of us, Sivertson included, struggle to make out who, if anybody, is to be trusted.

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