Dreams and Censorship by David Pownall

Contact Us

BBC Radio 7, 23 October 2010
Set in 1610, David Pownall's historical drama was an ambitious portrayal of Shakespeare (Edward Petherbridge) in his later career as a confidante of King James I (Hugh Ross), the leading actor/manager of his time, yet also something of a killjoy as he feared that no one would want to see his plays any more, now that they could enjoy the new translation of the Bible. With this in mind, Shakespeare determines to influence King James' mind, making him believe that the Book of Revelation will feed the popular desire for apocalyptic imagery, and hence promote sedition.
Shakespeare's role is part of a more searching analysis of the power of the theatre to embody and influence public opinion; to create the kind of dreams on stage that can change lives. The action unfolds on three levels: as a meditation on the King's and Shakespeare's opinions of the Bible ("All the best minds will be full of Genesis, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Kings, Acts: stories of lust, murder, sacrifice, redemption,") a performance of a play about St. John (Robert Stephens) on Patmos, and an analysis of Shakespeare's state of mind as he contemplates the subject for his next play. At the end James gives his approval for the Bible after having witnessed a performance of the play at Oxford. He is particularly affected by a Vestal Virgin - played by his own son - who is crucified; the King, sitting in the audience, bursts into tears and remembers the fate of his own mother, Mary Queen of Scots.
However the play ended on a sombre note, as we understood that this power can be interpreted negatively as well as positively. By 1642 the theatres had been closed down by the Puritans, who wanted to censor any organization that might question their rule. King James' desire to ban the Bible (on account of its seditious content) was taken to extremes, and thereby proving the truth of the assertion that where there are dreams - especially in the public sphere - there must also be censorship.
Nonetheless something good does emerge from the performance, as the St. John play encourages Shakespeare to write one play about an island full of dreams - The Tempest, which was first staged in 1611.
Sometimes the action seemed unnecessarily complicated as it moved between its three plot-levels, but Dreams and Censorship nonetheless attests to the power of the theatre to move as well as persuade. The director of this production - first broadcast on Radio 3 in 1993 - was Eoin O'Callaghan.