Capturing the tigress spirit of Sylvia Plath, radio review
Gillian Reynolds reviews the week's radio, including Radio 4's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Mad Girl's Love Song.
Sylvia Plath is the subject of Radio 4's Book of the WeekPhoto: Rex
By Gillian Reynolds 7:00AM GMT 13 Feb 2013
History is misty stuff. It shifts. Figures fade in and out, changing shape as time passes. Yes, there are documents, evidence of what happened but every historian will shape them into a readable narrative, a new interpretation.
Richard III, now. Do we know more or less of the truth about him since last week’s examination of a skeleton found in a car park? We know him best from Shakespeare’s play, which, let us remember, was partly posh propaganda for the ruling dynasty of the time but, then again most of us only remember the play from a lead performance – Olivier, Sher, Spacey – each taking us further away from established fact, deeper into interpretation.
BBC radio is currently up to its shoulders in this looping quandary as histories and anniversaries fill the air. Verdi and Britten on Radio 3, The Beatles on Radio 2, Radio 4 with Britten, Orwell and, from this week, Sylvia Plath. It can feel like walking round a waxwork that keeps growing bigger while we are constantly asked to consider the relationship between the person, the work and its time. Ultimately, it is the work that matters.
The new production of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Radio 4, Sunday) is very good. Of all the plays and readings produced for this season it is the one that shines. It feels real, immediate. The casting is intelligent, Christopher Eccleston as Winston Smith, Tim Pigott-Smith as O’Brien, Pippa Nixon as Julia. Under Jeremy Mortimer’s direction they don’t sound as if they are in a studio, talking for the microphone. Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation is lean, moves fast. The listener can, emotionally, feel part of the action. Part two follows this weekend.
Saturday night’s Archive on 4, The Road to Nineteen Eighty-Four, was similarly impressive. Presenter David Aaronovitch and producer Phil Tinline made sense of the political tangles of the Thirties and Forties, drew on evocative voices from Orwell’s time (David Astor, Malcolm Muggeridge) showed (as opposed to told) how Orwell’s experience would have changed and shaped his political convictions, his works, his masterpiece.
Mad Girl’s Love Song (Radio 4, daily) is the new Book of the Week, Andrew Wilson’s life of Sylvia Plath, focused on the years before she met and married Ted Hughes, tracing what made her a writer, a striver, competitive, rider of a tigress temperament. Hayley Atwell narrates, other voices enter and exit. Listen in conjunction with the new Book at Bedtime (Radio 4, Monday) Sally Marmion’s deft serialisation of Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, first published in 1963, the year she committed suicide. The reader is Lydia Wilson, whose voice is high, light, unlike the Plath voice (intense, oracular) of her radio readings. It’s understandable. Plath was a published poet when she recorded those, married to Hughes, still riding tigress emotions. The fictional protagonist of The Bell Jar is younger but as fierce for risk as Plath herself.
There was an unexpected, unannounced gem about Plath onBroadcasting House (Radio 4, Sunday). Two people who knew her well, Jillian Becker and Al Alvarez, remembered her final weeks, the cold of that winter, the depths of her depression, Plath’s voice reading a poem was overlaid with that of Alvarez, saying the same words. I didn’t hear a credit for this feature but it was clearly by someone who comprehends the work, the context, the author and it evoked them all, unforgettably.
Mrs Updike (Radio 3, Sunday) was a new play by Margaret Heffernan, once a BBC producer, now a successful entrepreneur, still a canny judge of character and motivational complexity, all of which help when drawing on real life as a source. Eileen Atkins played Linda Updike, mother of novelist John Updike (Charles Edwards). Determined, not rich, disappointed in marriage, she made John her life but on her terms, proud of his success yet fiercely competitive with him as a writer. He has come home to tell her his marriage is over. She is not going to make it easy for him. Quitting is not in her book. The play wove in and out of the real time of President Nixon’s resignation, nipped back into Updike’s childhood, caught the rising star of his fame, noticed how his psoriasis and asthma flared up under stress, just as his mother did things she knew would aggravate both. It wasn’t history but it sounded quite profoundly true.