Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy, adapted by Jon Sen

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 23-30 August 2009
This was melodrama garnished with prime cuts of ham: the tale of a doomed affair between Lady Constantine (Maggie O'Neill), an unhappily married member of the aristocracy, and the twentysomething would-be astrononer Swithin St. Clair (Blake Ritson). The plot consisted of reversal after reversal: Lady Constantine's husband was presumed dead in Africa, leaving her free to remarry, but her choices were restricted by her dominant brother Louis (Richard Heap), who insisted on her choosing someone socially superior (and rich). Meanwhile St. Clair inherited a fortune, but only on condition that he also found a suitable marriage partner. The second episode of this Radio 4 classic serial brought further revelations. Lady Constantine and St. Clair married in secret, but discovered that their union had no legal validity; Lady Constantine's husband had passed away later than was first assumed, and Lady Constantine herself was still legally married to him when she tied the knot with St. Clair. Louis forces her into an unwanted marriage with the aging but affluent local bishop (Russell Dixon), while St. Clair emigrates to pursue his researches in darkest Africa. The lovers reunite at the end, but nothing comes of it, as Lady Constantine passes away in St. Clair's arms.
The difficulty facing director Stefan Escreet lay in rendering this material plausible. The cast tried their best; but Louis spoke with such a menacing rasp that it was difficult not to imagine him as a tyrant in Victorian melodrama. St. Clair remained calm, but his voice became shriller and shriller as misfortune gradually stunted his ambitions. Although his work remained important, he would gladly have sacrificed it for love. The production's basic conceit was to have Lady Constantine act as the storyteller recounting her experiences to her young son Joshua (Carter Dowland). While this gave her the chance to reflect on her past mistakes, it also provided the chance for a melodramatic climax, as we learned exactly who Joshua's father was (no prizes for guessing correctly). Now Lady Constantine could die in peace, secure in the belief that there was nothing left to hide. She might have erred in the past, but could now seek forgiveness.
This adaptation certainly proved entertaining for a Sunday afternoon slot, but failed to suggest that it was anything more than minor Hardy - the kind of material that might have been better suited to the Lyceum Theatre at the end of the nineteenth century, when Henry Irving carried all before him.