Thursday, July 21, 2011

the climber scrambles and clambers ever higher

I've put this link in the sidebar but I'm going to add it here as well -- it is Brian Sibley's Radio 4 serial adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Titus books. I can't say anything about Episode Two, because I haven't listened to it yet, but Episode One is excellent, just an excellent example of books being taken apart as books and put together again as radio. The opening lines of the first book, the outer houses clinging like limpets to the castle wall, don't appear until almost twenty-five minutes in, and he inserts them as we're following a character away from Gormenghast for the first time, and seeing it from without -- which is exactly the point of view of those lines. So he's paying attention to what things mean.

He has (and he had this too, back in 1984 when he turned the trilogy into a radio two-parter) an Under Milk Woodish habit of eliding his lines, and slicing them up, so that one character might start a description and another character slip in to finish it, or the narrator will begin to explain a point, then a character in the scene will speak and the narrator will pause naturally, as if a comma has uttered, then go on. The whole play flows and flows as though we're listening to a river running on and each ripple has a new voice. This is how he gives us Nannie Slagg leaving the castle to find a wetnurse for the baby --

A Bright Carver: One from the castle comes amongst us.
Nannie [to herself]: Ooh, but I must remember the right words …
Narrator: Nannie Slagg
Nannie: The bright carvers.
Narrator: Fourteen inches taller on account of a black hat
The Bright Carvers [responding to Nannie]: The castle!
Narrator: Topped off with a bunch of glass grapes that flare in the moonlight.

-- and here are the two narrators taking part in the same sentence --

Titus: Meanwhile, Steerpike the climber scrambles and clambers ever higher
Narrator: Through the dusty matted mass of ivy
Titus: Ever nearer to my world

-- and here's the technique in Milk Wood:

First Voice: Ocky Milkman, drowned asleep in Cockle Street, is emptying his churns into the Dewi River,

Ocky Milkman: regardless of expense,

First Voice: and weeping like a funeral.

The lines slip after one another pauselessly; the pauses in this play occur within the actors' performances, their own pauses, in character, the Doctor, for example, giggling, hesitating, then laughing again. (James Fleet as Doctor Prunesquallor gives individual personalities to passages of speech that, written down, would not be anything more useful to an actor than the flat nudity of "ha ha ha.") They slide on one another's heels like those staggered splitlines of Shakespeare's, in King Lear, Scene Two, Act Two, when Kent says, "It is both he and she / your son and daughter," and Lear follows immediately with, "No." Online versions of the script don't seem to replicate this, but the Oxford Shakespeare I've got here shows the nos and yeses arranged down the page from left to right like a set of steps. Kent: "Yes." Lear: "No, I say" -- and then the next line shuttles all the way back to the left side of the page as the tempo skips a beat and then it begins to make steps again: "I say yea," "By Jupiter I swear no." Maybe Kent, feeling thwarted by "No I say," had to pause to gather himself together for another assault on the unbelieving and knuckleheaded world, who knows; the actor can interpret it as he likes. But the way the lines are placed -- the fact that the playwright means them to follow one another quickly -- "conveys an increased sense of dramatic moment," writes David Crystal in the Oxford's introduction. And it does, even on the page. "An increase in tempo is also an ideal mechanism for carrying repartee," writes Crystal, and he quotes another example of stepped lines from Taming of the Shrew. Kate and Petruccio: "You are withered. " "Tis with cares." "I care not." The Titus books are known among other things for their slowness, but Episode One moves like repartee, like a grand conversation, addition on addition like a stack of challenges pushing onwards, like a train, clack clack clack.

No comments:

Post a Comment