BBC Radio 4, 22-26 October 2012
I did not manage to listen to earlier series of The Pillow Book,
so I approached Robert Forrest's drama as someone who had only seen Peter Greenaway's 1996 film of the same name.
I do not remember much about it, except for the fact that Ewan McGregor appeared with a smile and not much else.
The Pillow Book is a series of observations and musings recorded by Sei
Shonagon (Ruth Gemmell) during her time as Consort to the Empress Teishi during the tenth and eleventh centuries in Heian
Japan. The book was completed in 1002; English translations have appeared regularly, most recently by Meredith McKinney
in 2006. Robert Forrest's radio version transforms Sei Shonagon into a quasi-detective; someone who solves mysteries - in
this case, the mystery of the marriage between a young woman of royal blood and a poet of modest background that seems to
be hurtling towards destruction.
I do not want to disclose too much of the plot, but was most striking about Lu Kemp's
production was the way in which it was staged. The actors spoke in stage-whispers, suggesting that they were communicating
something private in a confined space that they did not want anyone else to overhear. However what they discussed was
of intense political significance. In this world no distinction existed between private and public utterances; they
were all one and the same. Sei Shonagon communicated her thoughts direct to listeners through asides; but this was no
private reflection, but an assessment of the situation as she understood it at any given time. We were placed in the
possession of silent witnesses, metaphorically sitting cross-legged in the same room as Sei, as she spoke to her various interlocutors.
This strategy transformed The Pillow Book into a tranquil yet
at the same time compelling piece. Little seemed to happen in the way of action, but we listened intently to everything
that was being said. Like Sei Shonagon, we tried to make sense of the information being imparted to us.