Vivat Rex by Martin Jenkins

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Vivat Rex on BBC Radio 4 Extra

BBC Radio 4 Extra, 30 April - 4 June 2012
First broadcast to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, Vivat Rex is a prime example of 'event' drama - a twenty-six part chronicle of British history from the reign of Edward II to the middle of Henry VIII's reign (1307-1533). Much of the dialogue came from Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including Marlowe, augmented by specially-written blank verse from Jenkins himself. The cast read like a who's who of British theatre history, including Gielgud, Scofield, Michael Redgrave, Anthony Quayle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Hurt, Billie Whitelaw, Nigel Stock, Derek Jacobi, Martin Jarvis, as well as the thirty or so actors comprising the BBC Radio Drama company at that time. The narrator was Richard Burton, making a welcome return to radio after a long break.
The project was not only ambitious  - twenty-six episodes stretching over six months - but also potentially risky, as it required listeners to stay with the series over a lengthy period of time, as well as accustom themselves to Shakespearean/ Marlovian blank verse.
Listening to the series again after thirty-five years was a fascinating experience. On the one hand one welcomed the chance to hear some of the great radio voices once again: for all his reputation as a film actor, Burton had a remarkable voice that wrapped itself lovingly round Jenkins' dialogue. He could command attention in a way that few actors have been able to do, either in the present or the past. Likewise John Hurt has a unique voice - as Edward II he combined pathos with the kind of petulance associated with his Caligula in I Claudius (made a year before Vivat Rex).
Despite its epic quality - for example, in the sheer size of its cast, Vivat Rex was also an intimate drama, relying for much of its emotional power on the interplay between one, two or three characters. Martin Jenkins' and Gerry Jones' production reminded us that monarchs were perfectly ordinary people at heart, experiencing the same kind of emotional struggles. The fact that their actions could determine the future of the entire British kingdom was actually incidental.
I am sure the scheduling must have been deliberate on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra's part. Vivat Rex offered a fascinating stylistic contrast to Mike Walker's The Plantagenets, which finished its run a week or so previously. The Plantagenets was a down-to-earth drama, in which sound-effects and down-to-earth performances revealed the grimy reality lurking beneath the pomp and circumstance of medieval kingship. Vivat Rex was a more intimate drama, exploring the protagonists' lives in detail through dialogue and the interplay between characters. Listen to it if you can; it's an experience not to be missed.