Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac, dramatized by Rose Tremain

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Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac, dramatized by Rose Tremain (2014). Dir. Gordon House. Perf. Ian McKellen, Alison Pettitt, Shirley Dixon. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 2-3 Mar. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 2 Apr. 2015

Ian McKellen's performance as Grandet in this adaptation won him the award for Best Actor in an Audio Drama at the BBC Audio Drama Awards for 2014. Vocally speaking, he has great fun with a meaty role of a domestic tyrant with a considerable fortune in perpetual fear of poverty. Hence he continually mistreats his family, dominating his wife (Anna Calder-Marshall) and trying to influence his daughter Eugénie's (Alison Pettitt's) life. At heart he is nothing more than a big baby; when told by long-serving domestic Nanon (Shirley Dixon) that he has overstepped the mark, he immediately begs forgiveness from Eugénie.

Although ostensibly set in France (Rose Tremain's script includes occasional references to "ma fille," this version of Balzac's classic novel is redolent of Dickens's "Hard Times," with the Grandgrindesque Grandet speaking in a broad northern accent, while his timid daughter tries to lose her northern vowels, especially when in the company of Charles (Blake Ritson), the ever-so-well-bred socialite from Paris who has been forced by circumstance to live with the Grandet family.

The story is a predictable one of greed, patriarchal tyranny and filial rebellion. It makes some trenchant points about the corrupting power of money, especially on Grandet's psyche. The action moves swiftly from one scene to another, linked by Nanon's narration. As the servant, she can not only see what happens to the Grandet family over time, but can interpret such incidents for the listeners' benefit. As the action progresses, however, so her circumstances change; she eventually gets married and discovers the pleasure of sexual activity - perhaps for the first time. Her account of seeing her husband's penis for the first time, and her subsequent nights of passion, are especially amusing.

There are strong links between "Eugénie Grandet" and Henry James's "Washington Square," reminding us of the American's indebtedness to Balzac for much of his literary style. Both authors offer sympathetic portraits of the female central character, as she struggles to survive in a patriarchal world where she is treated as nothing more than a commodity. Neither of them end up living happy lives, but at least they acquire an awareness of the realities around them, and learn how to cope without the overarching presence of their fathers.