Magazine article The Spectator

Modern Miracles

Magazine article The Spectator

Modern Miracles

Article excerpt

Five clever updates of Old Testament stories filled Radio 3's late-night speech slot this week and revealed just how difficult it is to make these stories work in a contemporary setting. Without the cadences of the Authorised Version, the rigour of the language, its powerful rhetoric but also its inflated poetic style, Noah and his ark, or Samson and Delilah, can appear quite ridiculous.

How do you make sense of miracles in our enlightened times? A young man who works in a B&Q DIY store follows a 'vision' and saves his family from a flood in Lewisham by building a boat out of timber he has stolen off the shop floor? Teenage Samson struggles at school because of his exceptional strength, pulling doors off hinges and breaking chairs, and because his mother, a hairdresser, refuses to cut his hair? But New Mystery Plays (produced by Jessica Dromgoole) just about pulled off this sleight of hand, the quality of the writing (by five different playwrights) packing so much into just 15 minutes, a life story told in fewer than 2,000 words.

Sean Buckley's retelling of the Creation Story was particularly effective, giving us Genesis through the mind of a young woman in a coma. It was a hard listen, and you really had to concentrate to work out what was going on. Jo (played by Alex Tregear) has been unconscious for three years since an accident. Her nurse (Jonathan Forbes) is waiting for a response, a flutter of the eyelids, a twitch in a finger, anything to suggest that something is going on in her mind. We, as listeners, are taken inside that mind, and into Jo's struggle to get out of her locked-in state. The beginnings of language. The difficulties of communication.

On Broadcasting House this week Paddy O'Connell and his guests were talking about what makes us listen. What makes us really listen to, instead of just half-hearing, the voices of John Humphrys, Rob Cowan, Nicky Campbell or Chris Moyles burbling away in the background. They decided it was something to do with a change in the tone of voice, either in anger or with emotion. Or because if the news has segued into a drama there's been a clever creation of atmosphere. It's the sudden switch into an unusual soundscape that grabs our attention.

In Sean Buckley's short mystery, it was the intriguing use of language which drew me in. And the echoey atmosphere - clinical, nothing soft, all clipped, hard edges - contrasting with the nurse's rippling stream of conversation as he tries to make some connection with his long-silent patient. …

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