South Downs by David Hare

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Saturday Drama on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 1 September 2012
Much has been written about David Hare's autobiographical play, that opened in September 2011 in Chichester and transferred to the West End six months later. It is an intensely moving portrait of an unhappy fourteen-year-old boy John Blakemore (Alex Lawther), who finds himself unable to communicate with anyone around him; neither his fellow-pupils nor his head teacher (Nicholas Farrell). Eventually John finds some kind of solace in an unlikely meeting with the mother of one of his classmates (Anna Chancellor), who understands his feelings and offers him sound advice as to how to cope with the future.
In Catherine Bailey's radio version, performed by the original West End cast, South Downs came across as a series of intimate dialogues in which all the characters tried to make sense of their lives. This was a difficult task: in a public school like Lancing College (set during the 1960s), life was dominated by a series of meaningless rituals - the clang-clang of the bell calling the students to dinner, or signalling the end of the lesson, the weekly spell of worship, the confirmation class. No one seemed able to admit to their real feelings - not least the head teacher, in spite of his extensive knowledge of Christianity and its ostensible purpose.
The first half of Jeremy Herrin's production resembled a series of verbal sparring matches, in which words were used to obfuscate rather than communicate. When Blakemore tried to disclose his feelings, he was wilfully misunderstood by students and teachers alike - not least his English teacher (Andrew Woodall). Lawther gave a remarkable performance; his tone of desperation becoming more and more pronounced as his isolation increased.
As the action unfolded, so the tone changed somewhat, especially when Blakemore met the mother. An actress by profession, she explained in simple terms the necessity of dissembling as a means of survival. However she also implied that this was something negative rather than positive. By cultivating a persona - like an actress - Blakemore might acquire self-belief. As portrayed by Chancellor, she came across as someone who - perhaps uniquely in this play - understood herself and her relationship to other people.
Radio seems a particularly good medium for capturing people's loneliness. Perhaps this is because of its intimate qualities; the sense that we are listening to someone trying to talk about themselves, even if they struggle to find the appropriate words. It is this quality above all that rendered South Downs such a captivating piece of work.