My first real experience as an actor was in a sixth-grade production of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Our teacher had the brilliant idea of staging it as a radio play, broadcast to the entire school over the intercom system.
The day of the production, the school office was transformed into a live-radio broadcast booth, complete with all the requisite sound effects to pull off a convincing audio experience for the student body. For the next two hours, the school was spell-bound. And I was hooked. I’ve worked in theatre ever since.
Unfortunately, though, I’ve never again had the pleasure of being part of a Radio Theatre production. It’s a unique artform, one that captures the immediacy of a live stage performance and yet the sense of deliberate art direction that we get from film. When I’ve tried to direct stage productions with a similar kind of evocative auditory design, actors have rebelled. They feel it takes away some of their improvisational liberties. And they’re right. It does. Radio Theatre is less about the actors being “in the moment” and more about putting the audience “in the moment.”
If you’ve never experienced Radio Theatre, I highly recommend the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre production of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Despite state-of-the-art sound design and editing (and, in part, due to that very design), this pre-recorded theatre broadcast completely captures the immediacy and power of live Radio Theatre.
One reason is that writer/director Paul McCusker is devoted to the art of Radio Theatre, and has an extensive resume that qualifies him for the task. Another reason is that the British cast, which includes Oscar-winner Paul Scofield (“A Man for All Seasons,” 1962) and David Suchet (TV’s Hercule Poirot), is mostly well-acquainted with Radio Theatre. This contrasts starkly with American actors, who, by and large, tend to have very little exposure to the art.
The really good news is that McCusker has also taken great pains to present an adaptation that is wholly faithful to the original book. There are the natural failures of radio to fully convey the visual sense of the book, of course, such as the character-defining facial expressions that Lewis describes during Edmund’s first encounter with the White Witch. And the necessities of putting into dialog what Lewis glosses in descriptive passages lead to some oddities, such as when Aslan says “Thank you” when Peter hands him his sword for his knighting ceremony.
But these are very small shortcomings. With very few exceptions, McCusker makes sound choices in dividing the story between narration and dialog, and perhaps only steps wrong for family audiences when prolongingly dramatizing Aslan’s death. Certainly, this scene is less surprising now than it would have been prior to the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Still, it may be too gruesome for some children to bear.
In addition, Suchet’s vocal characterization of Aslan may strike some as overdone. McCusker explains that Suchet was aiming at an enunciative style that would be consistent with the facial gymnastics necessary for a lion to speak English understandably. From that standpoint, the delivery makes sense, but is still distracting at times.
Nonetheless, this production of The Chronicles of Narnia (at least, based on the one volume I listened to) is well worth your time, particularly if you spend a lot of time with your family in the car. Begun in 1997 and originally completed last year, the series is being given another full run on the radio this summer. Visit the Narnia Radio Web site for a schedule and list of participating radio stations.
Better yet, buy a copy. If you listen to this series once, I think you’ll want to listen to it again.
And if you’re leery of this adaption because of the Focus on the Family connection, don’t be. McCusker’s calling is art, not politics or evangelism.
Director: Paul McCusker
Writer: C.S. Lewis
Cast: The Storyteller: Paul Scofield; Aslan: David Suchet.
The production’s official Web site is here.