Homer's epic with the Logue touch

Listening to unfamiliar radio stations is a bit like eavesdropping or not putting down the phone on a crossed line conversation. What is said is intelligible but not completely understood. I sit in strange towns sometimes, waiting for voices between the records to tell me by words or even by accent something of the particularity of that place. It can be a long wait.

Yet just a twist away on the dial, words can still burn like tigers in the night forest. Strange to think of Kings (Radio 3, Sunday) co-habiting with giggling middle-aged DJs, broken-hearted country singers, the endless whispering ch-tup-a-tup-tup from dance stations, the stressing of every fifth words by newscasters who would one day like to make it on to TV. This is the democracy of radio. The listener's moving finger can still choose.

Choosing Kings might not have been easy. Just on two hours spent with Christopher Logue's version of Homer is a big investment. Here were Books I and II of The Iliad not so much translated as remade, spoken by one voice, Alan Howard. Donald Fraser's music was spare, airbrushing the emotional edges. All the action was in the words and the telling, and it was as thrilling a piece as I have ever heard or could wish to hear.

Logue's script asked the eye of the imagination to follow, like a camera, what was happening. Achilles, furious at Agamemnon, calling his goddess mother Thetis from the sea; Athena intervening in a fight, pulling back Achilles's head to her mouth to hear her warning; Thersites trying to rouse the rabble, Odysseus rising to reply then caning him into humiliation. Finally, in perfect dramatic focus and formation, the army marches down the low hill towards Troy.

Logue showed close-ups, long shots, reversed the angle to catch reactions, panned along the ranks. The listener was there, a part of it and yet above it too, among the armies and with the gods as well. Crosscuts to contemporary references - Alamein, the Skopje earthquake - let the eye blink between scenes, allowed the mind time to muster. This was real epic, a story about men and destiny and the forces which shape it.

Alan Howard's performance and Liane Aukin's direction deserve only the highest praise. Kings was radio at its simplest and most magnificent.

Gillian Reynolds

Daily Telegraph, 26.3.1991.

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