Macedonia by David Rudkin

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Macedonia by David Rudkin. Dir. Jeremy Mortimer. Perf. Michael Pennington. BBC Radio 3, 15 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 17 Mar. 2015.

Reviewing this production for "The Stage," Moira Petty commented that this play, based on Euripides's creation of The Bacchae "is far from the standard polite version." Through David Chilton's sound design and Mia Soteriou's music the production evokes "a hypnotic blend of peasant riffs and stoney [sic] beauty [...] [it contains] a Zen-like stillness and refusal to compromise a difficult vision." (

It's interesting how radio dramas can strike listeners in such different ways. For me "Macedonia" seemed far more concerned with the power of the imagination, the ability of Euripides (Michael Pennington) to conjure up powerful voices in his mind that speak to him from the mountains. Although exiled to Macedonia because Athenian public opinion has turned against him, the experience proves cathartic for him, as his sojourn in a wild landscape (especially in comparison with the "civilized" world of Athens) helps to stimulate his imagination.

Much of David Rudkin's play takes place within Euripides's mind, as he tries to put his powerful experiences into words. The language is frequently hypnotic, lulling listeners into a sense of aural security, which is abruptly broken through the use of an arresting metaphor. Rudkin has a unique gift for writing blank verse, brilliantly delivered in a performance of vocal light and shade by the leading actor. Years ago Pennington gave a memorable performance as Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company; his characterization of Euripides proved once again his gift for communicating the inward thoughts of a highly complex protagonist.

At one point Euripides grumbles that he had little chance of communicating the moral message underpinning "The Bacchae"; that behavior based on a purely emotional response unfettered by reason can be destructive. Yet this statement emphasizes one of the play's major ironies: the only truly "reasonable" sequence occurs when Euripides meets Mefistes (Sam Crane) an emissary from the Greek oligarchy, and vows to toe what might be described as the official literary line; in other words, produce the kind of literary works that are deemed suitable for public performance. At this point the language becomes stilted, almost mechanical, quite devoid of the verbal flights of fancy that have hitherto distinguished the play. If "reasonable" behavior consists of empty words deprived of emotion or passion, then the so-called moral message of "The Bacchae" is equally meaningless, a sop to those who would try to censor the writer's creative abilities.

The writer still assumes an important role in society; not only as a visionary (conjuring up alternative worlds), but as a pedagogue as well. In his few moments of respite, Euripides interacts with the locals, Oreivassa (Mia Soteriou) and Nikos (Hambi Pappas), and even gets to teach them the rudiments of Greek. He only manages to cover the first two letters of the alphabet - A and B - but by doing so Euripides emphasizes the importance of the sound, as well as the sense of words. Just to be able to pronounce those two letters AB represents some kind of imaginative accomplishment, giving Nikos the chance to indulge in his own flights of verbal fantasy. The writer doesn't teach facts, but rather releases an individual's creative energy.

In keeping with the production's focus on the power of the imagination, David Chilton's sound-design conjured up a world in which anything could be possible. "Logic" in terms of one sound's relationship to another did not really matter; it was more important to create a fantasy-world analogous to Euripides's fertile state of mind.

Jeremy Mortimer's production demanded close attention from listeners - even if they were not necessarily acquainted with "The Bacchae" - but the imaginative rewards were considerable if they were prepared to do so.