Monday, 2 May 2011

I'm Still the Same Paul (radio play about Paul Robeson)

This is to bring readers' attention to a radio play about the singer and activist Paul Robeson by Annie Caulfield whch will be available on BBC iplayer till the 8th of May here (the above image is a screengrab.) Most BBC iplayer radio content (as opposed to TV) is accessible outside the UK so it's worth a try wherever you are.

I heard it at the time of its original broadcast and listened to it again this morning. The vague memory I had retained was that it was okay but a bit jumbled. Listening again, my brain oxygenated by a swim, I was rather more impressed than expected, and recommend it despite a few reservations.

The play, although episodic, certainly has a clear structure: an FBI agent formerly assigned to monitor Robeson's movements pores over old files in search of something which might explain the singer's mental decline.

In addiition to Robeson and the agent, we see events through the eyes of Robeson's wife Essie as well as a close female friend, particularly useful as as he becomes - or seems to become - increasingly detached from reality. For those, like me, only vaguely aware of Robeson's being hounded for his Communist sympathies, the play is an eye-opener.

It is certainly what one D.V. Podmore would call "there or thereabouts", writingwise, but my reservations are to do with the dialogue rather than the shape of the play. There is the odd heightened moment but as a whole it seems ... well, prosaic.

To which the playwright might reasonably respond that her primary aim has been to tell a complex tale in as clear and efficient a manner as possible, and I have no real answer to that, beyond wondering what other hands might have made of the same raw material.

Maybe it's wrong to make comparisons exclusively with plays about singers, but Neil McKay's A City Called Glory, about Sam Cooke, which has at least some overlap in content, seemed to blend the heightened and poetic with naturalistic dialogue more effectively, and the figure who framed the action - June Cheeks - was more intimately bound up with the central character (the play is discussed more fully in an earlier post here).

Suppose I'm really saying that I'm Still the Same Paul feels like a Radio 4 play in a Radio 3 slot - perhaps for no other reason than that it runs for 78 minutes (and if you're not aware of it, Radio 4 is dropping its one hour Friday Play slot, and soon just about everything will be 45 minutes or less).

But I recognise that this will probably seem like carping. Lennie Henry acquits himself well enough, although I did wonder he was slightly too much in declamatory mode in intimate situations - but I haven't made a study of Roebson speaking so I don't know.

Anyway, listen to it if you can - I'd be interested to know what others think.

Actually, thinking about it a bit further, and continuing to think about the Sam Cooke play, maybe the trouble is that we're expecting (or at least I am, or think I might be) what used to be known as the necessary scene in Caulfield's play, ie where the protagonist and his nemesis finally have it out. (Or maybe I'm getting confused about the different requirements of radio and stage plays; I'm not sure.) The FBI agent is a fiction, so why not have a meeting between them?

But then again, whatever Vincent (or Vincenzo, as Caulfield's Robeson tesingly calls him, sure he has  Americanised his name) might be able to admit openly to his victim would be compromised by his still being in the job. And it's notable that although he is given a potential confidante - a younger colleague curious about his interest in the files - such soul searching as there is remains firmly barred from general view.. Which I suppose has its own poignancy: with no one to whom he can safely speak of these things he is, like the unfortunate Robeson, a prisoner in his own head.

So in fact maybe it does all work and I'm carping. But I still think back to Neil McKay's play which pulls off a very neat trick indeed. By which I don't mean that the play is at all tricksy, but that McKay skilfully adds an additional layer of complexity. The character who frames the action there is Julius "June" Cheeks, lead singer of the Sensational Nightingales, on the same circuit as Cooke's gospel group the Soul Stirrers and even briefly in the Stirrers himself (it's all there in the earlier entry).

He starts off as a sort of mentor to young Sam, and their paths continue to cross even though Cooke pursues a secular career and Cheeks becomes a minister. But the masterstroke is that at a certain point we realise there are two June Cheeks: one is the narrator of the play, the man who, Ancient Mariner-like, is compelled to recreate the story of his friend's rise and fall for anyone willing to listen, in an attempt to understand it himself at last; the other is a voice in Cooke's head, a notion of Cheeks and the values they once shared, which remains even after he has ceased contact with Cheeks himself.

But even that is a creation of Cheeks-as-narrator, trying to piece together from his knowledge of the man a version of what happened in those final hours of his life at the Hacienda Motel which will make some kind of sense of it all.

For me, it's a perfect radio play. It was originally broadcast on a Saturday evening (part of the All Shook Up series directed by Andy Jordan) and I confess that I once forfeited a promising friendship because, forgetting it was on, I turned up, told the person in question that I had to go back home in order to tape it, and that was that. If you are reading this seventeen years on, I apologise - but it was important.

A further thought about I'm Still the Same Paul: maybe one unavoidable frustration about it as a play was that while the finger of blame is pointed at the end - the playwright cannot be specific about the extent charges. Actions which may have led indirectly to a certain outcome are not the same as actions which directly produce that outcome (I'm being deliberately vague for the benefit of those who may wish to hear the play). So the play cannot be tied up with a neat ribbon, though it seems to reflect the lack of hard information out there.


Breakdown of play's events on radiolistings website here.  
Relevant section of extensive wikipedia entry for Paul Robeson here.
Spectator review of original broadcast by Kate Chisholm here
Ditto Telegraph review by Gillian Reynolds here.
Karl Dallas on the play here.

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