BBC Radio 3, 15 April 2012
Originally broadcast in 1987, this black comedy depicted the struggles
of Professor Leopold Nettles (Richard Briers), who has offended the authorities in an unnamed country. A philosopher by trade,
he has written something incriminating - although he does know exactly what it is or why it is incriminating - and nervously
awaits retribution by the authorities. What renders his fight for freedom more complex is that his close friends expect
him to stand up for himself, a task for which he feels temperamentally unsuited.
Largo Desolato is primarily about language, and the ways in which it imprisons
people. Nettles receives regular visits from two unnamed officers, Sidney and Sidney (Philip Jackson, David Goodland), who
indulge in a series of verbal games involving repetition. The philosopher plays along, fearing severe retribution if he doesn't.
Bertram (John Moffatt), a smooth-voiced representative of the state, offers Nettles a deal; if he admits that the incriminating
piece was actually written by someone else, then his freedom can be guaranteed. Nettles dithers a little over whether
to accept; consequently Bertram's voice loses its honeyed tones and becomes far more hectoring. If friendly verbal persuasion
doesn't work, then it's time for intimidation.
One of the ironies of Largo Desolato, however, is that while Nettles is perceived
by his friends as a representative of "free speech," he is as much a prisoner of language as those who try to muzzle
him. He is obsessively preoccupied with himself and his work, to such an extent that he remains completely oblivious to those
closest to him - Suzanna (Jennifer Piercey). When the young student Marguerite (Sue Broomfield) declares her love for him,
Nettles can only respond with the kind of hackneyed cliches more suited to an indifferent Hollywood "B" picture. Perhaps Nettles
is aware of his verbal shortcomings, which may explain his reluctance to embrace the cause of "freedom."
The play ends with a Catch22-like scenario, with Nettles pathetically appealing for
release both from physical and verbal captivity, while remaining painfully aware that release is impossible.
As with most of Stoppard's work (original plays, translations and rewritings), Largo
Desolato is full of verbal flourishes - repetitions, rhetorical flights of fancy, quick exchanges between characters,
bathos and hyperbole. What becomes painfully obvious, however, is that nothing exists beneath such flourishes; they are actually
a means to deflect our attention away from the characters' confined. They are not only imprisoned by totalitarian rule, but
lack that imaginative spark which might release them mentally, if not physically.
On the one hand play is certainly a period-piece, evoking a world of the early
to mid-1980s before revolution swept the former Soviet empıre. On the other hand Matthew Walters' production made us
reflect on whether the contemporary world has actually improved the quality of indviduals' lives, or whether they are still
imprisoned within themselves, as well as in the worlds they inhabit.