Rasselas by Samuel Johnson, adapted by Jonathan Holloway

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Rasselas by Samuel Johnson, adapted by Jonathan Holloway. Dir. Amber Barnfather. Perf. Jeff Rawle, Ashley Zhangazha, Lucian Msamati. BBC Radio 4, 24 May 2015. BBCiPlayer

Ingeniously oscillating between the eighteenth century and the contemporary age, Rasselas began with the aging Samuel Johnson (Jeff Rawle) complaining about his bad luck; despite having achieved a considerable reputation with the Dictionary, he does not have sufficient financial resources to survive. His friend Arthur Murphy (Kevin Trainor) advises him not to write a polemical piece but turn instead to fiction.

Reluctantly Johnson agrees to do so; the result is a tale set in contemporary Abyssinia (Ethopia) of a spoilt King's son Rasselas (Ashley Zhanghaza) and his sister Princess Nekayah (Cynthia Erivo) chafing at their monotonous life within the Happy Valley. Everything seems perfect; they have everything they require; their lives are free of incident; and they can look forward to a lifetime of privilege. Yet life within the cocoon lacks incident; once the servant Pekuah (Adjoa Andoh) is captured, they resolve to find her, accompanied by their faithful retainer Imlac (Lucian Msamati).

The story comes across as a picaresque thriller with a contemporary edge: the youngsters' road trip involves an encounter with revolutionaries (or should it be refugees?) from the Arab Spring, providing them with a steep learning curve wherein they discover that daily life is not quite as idealistic as they might have anticipated. Likewise Johnson finds that the experience of writing the novel offers a similar learning experience; originally his decision to write it was provoked by resentment at the loss of his black servant Francis Barber. As he tells his narrative, and offers occasional reflections on it through direct aside, he understands that perhaps Barber did the right thing. Self-gratification is perhaps less significant than individual happiness.

Briskly directed by Amber Barnfather, this version of Rasselas offers a vivid representation of a liberal mind at work, proving that the novel is as significant today as it was on its first appearance.