Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, dramatized by Lavinia Murray

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Radio 4 Classic Serial website

BBC Radio 4, 11-18 December 2011
This was quite the funniest classic serial I have heard for some time. Constructed as a mock-epic, Gary Brown's production recounted the birth and education of Gargantua (Robert Wilfort), narrated by Rabelais himself (David Troughton). From the start there was an obvious contrast between Rabelais' matter-of-fact way of speaking and the grotesque events he described: even before he was born, Gargantua loved exploring the recesses of his mother Gargamelle's (Melissa Jane Sinden's) body; her liver and lungs as well as her uterus. In keeping with his name, Gargantua had a voracious appetite for Gargamelle's internal fluids, as well as those she imbibed (such as wine). When Gargantua finally emerged into the everyday world, he had a phenomenal capacity for excretion; he could flood entire communities with his urine.
The serial's mock-epic structure allowed Murray to make some telling points about the limitations of formal education: Gargantua's first tutor Holofornes (Jonathan Keeble) was worse than useless - to such an extent that Gargantua eventually crushed him to death by sitting on him. Rabelais apologized for this violent act in an aside delivered direct to listeners, but explained that as Holofornes was peripheral to the story, it was time to dispose of him anyway. Gargantua's second tutor Panochrates (Malcolm Raeburn) had better academic credentials, but he proved equally unable to educate his giant pupil. Rather than relying on the - inadequate - advice of his superiors, perhaps Gargantua needed to learn about life himself, rather than remaining a perpetual innocent.
The adaptation not only illustrated different types of bodily function, but aurally recreated some truly bizarre moments - such as Gargantua sitting on the top of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris - using music, background noise (from the actors) plus direct address to the listeners. Such techniques made us realize that the Rabelaisian world is one where anything can - and frequently does - happen; a phantasmagorical universe that was messy, bawdy and grungy. Murray's adaptation emphasized the fact that 'civilization' - understood, in this case, as the conventions of so-called 'polite' society - is only a veneer; given the chance, most people would behave in much the same way as Gargantua.
In the second episode, we will discover what happened to Gargantua's son Panatagruel. I can't wait to find out.