Epic and intimate, fantastical yet grounded – director Eleanor Thornton and DUCT have performed no minor feat in bringing Louis MacNeice’s radio play, ‘They Met on Good Friday’, back to the figurative radio. Before a word is spoken, the Celtic harp’s evocative and melancholic tones transport us a thousand years back in time. While the tale may not be a merry one, the warmth of the longhouse fire is tangible in this rousing story surrounding The Battle of Clontarf. If Christo-Viking warfare and medieval folklore is your thing, you really must give this a listen; if they are not, you ought to listen anyway.
The human interest in the play is pleasantly weaved by Thornton, and elevated by a few stand-out performances. Luke Skinner’s impressively gravelly vocals paint a vivid portrait of the grim Earl Sigurd. His flirtation with Jessica Price’s coldly alluring Queen Gormlai makes for a wonderful scene, though a more blatant use of euphemism wouldn’t have gone amiss. Robert Morrissey’s performance as King Brian was especially interesting: his gruff, clipped delivery and strong accent remove us from the obviously regal – a risky decision that Morrissey fully justifies as he turns the potentially unlikeable King into a movingly human character. His scenes with Richard Sharpe as the bishop are not only authentic – Sharpe has absolutely mastered the cadence of the clergyman – but some of the most intimate in the play. Other beautiful moments included the poetic interludes, underscored by more gorgeous harp. Laura Wildgoose, as the ‘poet’, showed a real appreciation for the unusual rhythms of MacNeice’s poetry, giving proverbial mystery and skaldic belligerence in equal parts. As she drops to a whisper at the end of the lines, ‘Those who slept in sty and ditch now are rich’, she induces a veritable shiver.
The ensemble cast copes very well with the challenges of this play: there are about ten major roles and over thirty minor ones, and rather an intimidating amount of backstory to be imparted in the first few scenes alone, demanding immense dynamism and clarity from the actors. Few actors do not take on at least two roles, and some admirable efforts are made to create distinctive characters. Issy Flower deserves particular praise for her appearance in eight different roles, with a unique voice for each. A little more vocal differentiation from Jessica Price and Rian Mullan might have been desirable for clarity, but the script prevented this from becoming a real problem. Price and Mullan still give highly enjoyable performances respectively as the captivating and complex Queen Gormlai, and her pathetic son Sigtryd. Accents, when employed, are convincing, if not always perfect. On a few occasions, I felt the self-consciousness that comes of recording in the bedroom seeping in, when lines that should have been hollered loud enough to silence a room full of warriors were delivered little above speaking volume. Perhaps this is a message for anyone recording remotely in the pandemic era: don’t be afraid to shout (with permission from your sound editor)!
The sound production is in some ways the star of the show – sometimes grabbing your attention to transport you to a new scene, sometimes acting subliminally until you happen to notice. Foley artist Nikolai Uemlianin Stone gets nothing wrong. From the creaking of the ships at sea, to a crackling fire and a lively pub, to the horses, swords, and cries of battle (and some juicy stabbing sounds), and even a dramatic raven attack, the listener is coaxed into a new reality, and there is ne’er a flaw. Sound editor Ryan King likewise does a great job: I am constantly amazed at how I know the size of the room from the quality of the reverberation; the overall continuity only faltered once – again, the curse of Covid. Best of all is the brilliant glimpse of the faerie-like women weaving men’s entrails on a bloody loam. The uncanny background effects evoke an atmosphere of retro sci-fi, and the women’s song, one voice multiplied and delayed to the point of near-incomprehensibility, is as disturbing as it is brilliant.
This is a play which has risen to some of the most serious challenges audio drama presents. Like all theatre, it has been a victim of the pandemic (some errors of pronunciation, and very small sound-quality blips, I trust, would have been swiftly ironed out in the studio), and an ensemble piece for radio is never easy. However, DUCT’s ‘They Met on Good Friday’ remains transporting, absorbing, and profound, and of which the cast and crew have a lot to be proud. If you are cold and bored over the coming winter nights, take a seat by the fire, grab a goblet of mead, and settle down to a haunting tale of war, magic, and humanity.
They Met on Good Friday is able to be streamed until 13th December, and tickets available for purchase on the DST website. Part of the profits will be donated towards Age UK.