Monday, October 29, 2012

Everybody WINZ!

Everybody WINZ! is 15-minute story from the New Shorts series on Radio New Zealand, broadcast earlier this year.  It’s another dark comic story, this time by Rebecca Barnes, and like Drones, focuses on the less savoury aspects of the working world.  I had no familiarity whatsoever with WINZ, though I gather it is something like the Job Centre/signing on in the UK.  Anyone who has familiarity with filling out forms in an attempt to get a job, any job, will understand, to an extent, the attitude of the main character.  When denied eligibility for a disability benefit, she makes some rather extreme choices in her attempt to prove herself wronged.  Interestingly, this play was recorded with final year actors from the radio drama course at Toi Wakaari; you wouldn’t necessarily know they weren’t professionals.  Yet I hope not every play on audio will soon be scripted and acted on an amateur basis.

I really enjoyed listening to audio plays from New Zealand.  There are occasional Australian voices on BBC Radio, but I have only heard Kiwis in amateur fan productions.  It’s quite interesting to visit different parts of the English-speaking audio world. 


It’s my first experience with Radio New Zealand, and as such, I wanted to go for their most current stuff—Adam Macaulay told me recently that Radio NZ are the biggest single producer of audio drama in the English-speaking world.  I listened to two plays from their New Shorts series, which are short pieces by new writers, highlighting the cooperatively-made nature of much of the most up-to-the-minute audio available online.  

Drones by Dan Bain is a 20-minute story from August of this year.  It stars Kate McGill as Rebecca, an entomology student who doesn’t really feel she fits in at her new call centre job.  Having done a very brief stint in a call centre myself (who hasn’t these days?), I had to groan with recognition of the childish, statistics-obsessed attitudes of the employees and the saccharine stupidity of the manager, Carl (Jack Sergent).  As a University graduate, like Rebecca, I found it easy to empathize with her feelings of isolation—though not to the point I started talking to a colony of ants!  Then things take a turn for the slightly incredible, and although I don’t want to give anything away, I will say I was impressed with the SFX for the memorable climax to the story.    Sir David Attenborough makes a cameo, although I was (unduly) disappointed that he was played by an actor.    

The Bacon Slicer

I went to the Republic of Ireland for the next play; while I hear a smattering of Northern Irish plays on the BBC, it isn’t often I hear RTÉ plays (although now that I know they’re available online I plan to listen to many more).   To hear recordings of stage plays played back on the radio is fairly common; Lux Radio Theater did something similar in the ‘40s in the US.  However, hearing radio plays recorded live in front of an audience is a more recent phenomenon that seems to be gaining ground.  Tin Can Podcast and the Wireless Theatre Company both offer radio in these kinds of settings.  The Bacon Slicer is one such drama, as part of RTÉ’s Drama on One and Dublin Theatre Festival.  As winner of 2012’s P J O’Connor Award for Radio Drama, I feel it is probably a good gauge for the state of radio drama in Ireland.  As such, with a small cast and a humble setting, I feel as though it’s not trying to do anything revolutionary—yet it is the kind of play you really want to listen to all the way through.  

The Bacon Slicer by Andrew Fox is a simple story of two middle-aged friends, Brian (Owen Roe) and Declan (Donal O’Kelly), enjoying a drink one evening, with occasional contributions from Brian’s elderly mother (Eileen Coglan).  Declan’s wife is being unfaithful to him, and Brian and his mother have a rather unusual way of wanting to deal with the situation.  I won’t say more in order to preserve the suspense and humor for you, but it is an enjoyable play.  Foley sounds are created in situ (as they would have been during OTR’s heyday, as recently exploited by the Fitzrovia Radio Hour) and scene transitions are provided by Little John Nee’s music.

Little Gou and the Standing Engagement

Little Gou and the Standing Engagement is not my usual audio fare; it actually bears more than a passing resemblance to Fruits Basket, in that it takes an Eastern mythology (in Fruits Basket’s case Japan, in Little Gou’s case, China) and makes it Westernized/accessible to a wider audience in a charming, user-friendly way.  I had a bit more trouble getting into Little Gou than Fruits Basket, though they are both parts of series.

Little Gou (pronounced “Go”) is a 17th century Chinese martial artist and a bit of a rogue (think D’Artagnan for a comparison).  As voiced by Robyn Paterson (who has written and produced the plays), Gou is appealing.  His sidekick, an unlikely warrior nun named Sister Cat (I’m unclear whether she actually is a cat) is the perfect foil, and to hear them arguing about Gou’s gambling debts or Sister Cat’s pacifist dilemmas is an amusing audio experience.  She is voiced by Fiona Thraille, a frequent contributor to Women in Audio Drama Group on Facebook.  

I got a bit lost in this particular story, but it had a nice pace and was very imaginative.  The music and sound effects were found in libraries and it’s assumed the recording was done the normal amateur audio way (ie each actor recorded his/her lines separately and then the producer mixed it).  Despite this, it does have a rather spontaneous feel to it, even if Sister Cat is rocking a somnambulant British accent and Gou is sounding pretty North American. 

I will certainly listen to some of the other plays to see where Gou’s swashbuckling takes him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Vampire By Any Other Name

A vampire by any other name
I was delighted to hear that BBC Radio would be returning to Dracula after having adapted it more than 10 years ago, in 1998, in a lavish 7-part version adaped by Nick McCarty and directed by Hamish Wilson.  I was especially curious given that the newest version was compressing the enormous book into a mere two hours to fit the Classic Serial slot.  Having looked at the BBC’s vampire dramas in detail in the last year due to my academic work coinciding with the Dracula and the Gothic conference held in Braga, Portugal, this last May, I am not surprised to say that I enjoyed Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s version and cannot honestly say which of the two I prefer.  It really depends on what kind of vampire fan you are. 

The narrative in the novel Dracula has been said by Carol Senf to “resembles a vast jigsaw puzzle of isolated and frequently trivial facts.”  Lenkiewicz has approached this in a very interesting way by opening the radio adaptation with something approaching sound collage, with the disparate voices of the main characters woven in with music as they set the scene for the future events.   Senf has also raised questions of the reliability of the narrators in Dracula, given the fact that “the narrators appear to speak with one voice.”  While I have found it true that it can be difficult for the ear to differentiate between the male leads (either between Harker and Holmwood or between Holmwood and Seward), the narrative sameness some might accuse the novel of is, in theory, not a problem in radio.  What struck me about the 1998 adaptation was that, even though many characters persisted in telling us their tales through the diaries and letters Stoker originally gave them, the phonograph device of Seward’s diary—surely a boon for a radio play?—had been completely abandoned.  Lenkiewicz seemed to go even further, presenting most of the scenes as they happened rather than one character’s communication to another.    

One narrative device I enjoyed from the 1998 adaptation was a framing narrative, in which the maddened Harker related in flashback his experiences to the sympathetic Mother Superior and Sister Agnes of the convent in Budapest.  While Mina does eventually find Harker in the convent and marry him, as in the book, not much time is spared for the poor put-upon sisters in Lenkiewicz’s version.  Instead, Harker’s letters to Mina are a great deal shorter, though I was impressed at the way some of the less creepy and more travelogue-esque opinions of Harker—such as descriptions of the fruit trees on the way to the Borgo Pass—were kept in.  There were fewer wolves in Lenkiewicz’s Transylvania, and we were totally deprived of one of my favorite scenes in the story, in which Harker sees Dracula climb up the wall of the castle, proving once and for all that we are dealing with a supernatural figure.

This is all, however, concurrent with Lenkiewicz’s visions of Harker and of the Count.  Her Count, played by Nicky Henson, is particularly verbose.  Every single line the Count had in Dracula has been scooped up by him and several more reams of dialogue have been invented.  While I was particularly frightened by the spare pronouncements of Frederick Jaeger’s Dracula in the 1998 adaptation, Henson’s focused less on taunting Harker, his prisoner, and more on exploiting his knowledge of England, which is one reason the vampire has imprisoned him in the first place.  This Dracula is an extremely cold, calculating, and sarcastic villain; I think the emphasis when he talks about being lonely and not wishing to live in buildings that are new is on his own irony.  In a sense, it’s almost as if he knows about the fourth wall and is making himself seem more sympathetic.  Yet, by his actions, and by the way he treats Mina and Lucy, we know he is basically without redemption. The shaving scenes in the two versions are case-in-point:  the 1998 version lingers on Harker’s horror and his near-hysteria; the 2012 version makes Dracula more verbose and almost teasing as he throws the mirror away.   

Also telling are the two versions’ approaches to the Brides (although, eschewing tradition, Lenkiewicz calls them “Vampiresses”).  The Brides’ advance on Harker in the book makes very clear the erotic overtones of Christopher Craft’s famous “a feminine form but a masculine penetration.”  Interestingly, and as a thematic concern that is reproduced several times in the 2012 version, Harker is the one who seems to experience the erotic during the Brides’ approach, whereas the Brides themselves seem to regard him only in terms of sustenance.  There is less of the keening and moaning that the actresses were called upon to produce for the 1998 version.  In a 2012, post-Twilight world where humanity has already been seduced sexually by the vampire, the vampire can show his or her complete indifference to the sexual appetites of humans—they are merely food and drink. It is worth noting that Harker, played by Michael Shelford, has been beefed up.  Although the Brides’ approach inspires him with lust, he is not depicted in a subservient, sexually submissive role to them, and in general his near-hysterics have been toned down.  He is more effective, he is more conventionally masculine, as if he had absorbed the absent Quincey’s personality. 

This is the first Dracula adaptation I know of written by a woman, and I wonder whether that is significant in light of the way Mina’s and Lucy’s characters have been rewritten.  Ellie Kendrick, a favorite young radio actress of mine, plays Mina, and Scarlett Brookes plays her best friend, Lucy.  Lucy has perennially been condemned or lauded for the fact in the novel she wonders (innocently or knowingly) why she cannot marry all three of her suitors.  Many people believe that Stoker meant to show, misogynistically, that because Lucy showed herself to be sexually available, she received the punishment of turning into a vampire and then being staked.  Whether you agree with this interpretation or not, I think Lucy has been written with more nuance and feeling in this version. 

For one thing, she only has two suitors.  For another, she never actually encourages Dr. John Seward’s affections and in fact tells Mina she feels quite awkward at having been proposed to him by him.  The proposal and rejection scene is played less for laughs than in the 1998 version, where the bumbling Seward sat on his hat by way of showing how nervous he was; in this version, the inner thoughts of both are revealed to the listener, and the resulting is painfully embarrassing.  It is with some relief that we realize Lucy will be much happier with Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming, who has sought her hand.  All of this, however, gives more flesh-and-blood oomph to the fact that later Dr Seward has to examine Lucy from a medical perspective.  One reason for Lucy’s delay in getting medical help after being bitten, we find, is that she is embarrassed to have to see Seward again.  This feels very natural to me, and is far cry from the Grail Knight mentality of the original Crew of Light; here at least there is the hint that Holmwood and Seward might think of each other as rivals on Lucy’s deathbed.  Mina, although a heroic character in any form, also feels a bit less buttoned-up, restricted by her super-proper New Woman role.  There is less wordage lavished on how incredibly Good she is, and she doesn’t defend writing her diary as being of some use to her fiancé.  Both women have been cast exceedingly young (and it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart on audio).

I was sad to realize that Quincey Morris, the Texan member of the Crew of Light, had been completely excised from Lenkiewicz’s version.  I understand that you need to cut someone—and in light of Lucy’s less devil-may-care attitude about suitors, it’s a natural choice.  Although he adds a nice bit of color and another masculine presence, Quincey probably won’t be missed by most.  Nevertheless, I put forth a bold proposition:  why not Renfield?  I have never quite understood what Renfield’s purpose in the novel is.  He gives Dr Seward something to do while he pines over Lucy; he is a bit of a Dracula-barometer in that he creates narrative foreshadowing and tension as to what exactly will happen when his “Master” arrives; he facilitates the helpful coincidence that Dracula’s abode will be Carfax, which is next-door to the lunatic asylum.  In the 1931 film version, Renfield and Harker’s characters were combined into one.  In the 1998 version, he had some very funny lines.  In the New Mexico Ballet performance of Dracula—a version that has stayed in my mind’s eye for years—Renfield as played by Pablo Rodarte vividly ate his flies on stage.  Although I am a fan of Don Gilet’s, and he makes an unusually good Renfield, I still can’t answer my own question about his function.

Necessarily the scenes in Whitby have been shortened in this version; much of the dramatic set up from the book has been excised, and the way the Demeter arrives and disgorges its black dog is actually rather sub-par.  Presumably Mina’s eyesight is really extraordinary as she sits up on the cliff with Lucy and the old sailor and is able to see the Demeter crash and the unfortunate captain lashed to the wheel.  Perhaps I’m being unfair, given that, in my opinion, the best Dracula adaptation is not actually the story of Dracula at all—at least, not entirely.  It’s Robert Forrest’s play The Voyage of the Demeter.               

Nevertheless, when Dracula attacks Lucy for the first time, the scene happens from their perspective, rather than Mina’s, which is unusual and gives Dracula even more time to talk.  It’s clear from the way he approaches Lucy here, and later in the play, by the explicit sexual language, that he is appealing to some subconscious desire in her for sexual fulfilment.  She wants to be seduced sexually; he just wants to be invited to suck her blood.  There is no tenderness or even eroticism to Dracula here; as the Brides say, he cannot and does not love. Dracula behaves thus to Lucy until she dies and also with Mina.  When he bites Mina for the first time, it is even suggested that she is mostly asleep and mistakes the male presence for her husband.  Subsequently, he is even more brutal to her, saying cuttingly, “Come now, my child, this is not our first time.” Now, I have a ghoulish enjoyment in tracking the graphic nature of horror story special effects on audio, and the biting and sucking sounds employed whenever a vampire bites someone in this version of Dracula are positively horrific.  I may even be justified in saying they are over-the-top. 

What is not over-the-top—and perhaps for the first time ever—is the depiction of Van Helsing, played by John Dougall.  I have a great fondness for the Van Helsing played by Finlay Welsh in the 1998 version because he also played Captain Rapelsky in Voyage of the Demeter.  However, it must be said that Stoker’s writing of Van Helsing is a caricature at best, with the kind of Dutch accent that has probably never existed in nature.  Nevertheless, I did miss some of Van Helsing’s excesses from the book, especially the “King Laugh” speech.  This Van Helsing was to the point, with a very muted Dutch accent.

It appears that in bringing pace and a touch of emotional reality to Dracula, we have had to forego all of the “hyperrealistic” elements that give the book pace.  What I mean by this is that, not only have we lost most of the diaries and letters, and excised the phonographic records, none of the newspaper clippings and logs from the novel have survived either (to be fair, Glyn Dearman’s Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula used many of these devices, which may have worked for establishing a suitably Holmesian atmosphere but did not really succeed in creating a gripping drama).  For example, instead of consulting the newspaper to find out about the missing children on Hampstead Heath after the death of Lucy, a helpful policeman tells Holmwood all about it.  (I wish the radio versions wouldn’t leave the wolf out.  That’s one of my favorite parts of the novel.) 

In Lenkiewicz’s version, narration is almost always privileged over dialogue-desciption.  Let’s take, for example, the staking of Lucy scene in the Westenra vaults—one of the best and most enduring of all the scenes in Dracula.  When Dermot Rattigan suggests that radio drama promotes “an imaginary sense of visual allusion through its creative and carefully composed use of all sounds including verbal, nonverbal, music, etc.,” he could be describing this scene.  In the 2012 version, the action is not conveyed via dialogue between the men as in this excerpt from the 1998 version: 

SFX: screaming and cries
MORRIS:  Look over there!  By the trees.
HOLMWOOD: It’s her!
SFX: child struggling, crying
SEWARD: She’s bending her face to the child’s neck, Van Helsing, stop her!
HOLMWOOD: Yes, we can see her blood, oozing over her mouth and over her grave clothes, her lips crimson and glistening . . .
SFX: the child cries out
HOLMWOOD: No, stop her! 

In this version, Seward tell us, the listeners, the visuals we cannot make out, in real-time.  Nevertheless, we still feel the atmosphere evoked so hauntingly in prose (“when the flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns . . . and rusty, dark iron, and tarnished brass, and clouded silver plating gave back the feeble glimmer of a candle”).  Another iconic scene which has been rendered in both exciting terms and faithfully to the book is the entrance on Carfax, the abandoned abbey where Dracula has sent some of his boxes of earth.

With the death of Lucy as the cliffhanger of the first episode, we are able to move rapidly through the events of the second half of the book, with what seems like less compression, though the characters seem to accept the events that are overtaking them with surprising alacrity.  By the time the Crew of Light have reached Romania, they have split up as they track the Count by water and by land.  There is a detailed scene of Van Helsing seeking out the Vampiresses and staking them all as they are asleep in their coffins, but rather strangely they never come to tempt Mina out of the circle of safety Van Helsing draws for her.   

I always feel a sense of satisfaction when I reach the end of the novel.  However, the radio versions I have encountered tend to end with an anticlimax.  In the 1998 version, the final scene in which Dracula is consigned to dust becomes confused and ends abruptly, especially for the reader of the book who might be expecting an epilogue. It is Mina who narrates the last scene of Lenkiewicz’s version, which sees her husband triumph and the death of Arthur Holmwood in place of Quincey Morris, as sacrificial victim.  In the 1998 version, Dracula’s last performance is anticlimactic, merely gasping, gurgling, and repeating “No!”  This is followed by wolves howling, eerie music, and the credits rolling.  In the 2012 version, however, he has even less to do; this particularly garrulous Dracula is conspicuously silent.  “Dracula’s crossing of boundaries is relentless”; in crossing over into radio adaptation, he has no final word and crumbles into dust almost as an afterthought (Botting 1999, 150).  

Lenkiewicz’s Dracula has a beautiful score, including lovely Romanian folk music which forms the bookends and transitions between the scenes. 

Do listen to this version of Dracula and enjoy all that the Gothic Imagination has to offer on BBC Radio 4 & Radio 4extra.