Open Theatre’s first production of the term represents a first for me. Rather than showing my ticket at the door and being ushered into the theatre, taking my seat and whipping out a notepad, I simply had to go to follow an online link, shove in my headphones and press play on the audio. Kudos must be given to OT for their faith in the concept of a radio play, and The Old Lie, written, directed and edited by Rory Yeates, certainly succeeds with its use of the format.
The Old Lie paints a bleak picture of Britain in 2063, ten years after the collapse of the U.N. and the outbreak of a global war for natural resources. This information is given to us in the form of a Ministry of Defence announcement spoken in an unusually anachronistic RP voice (played by Morgan King) reminiscent of World War One radio reports. Yeates’s play wears its wartime influences on its sleeve, making frequent reference to this type of old-fashioned wartime propaganda, quoting writers like Wilfred Owen (whose famous words constitute the play’s title) and even perhaps R. C. Sherriff, whose presence can be felt in words such as ‘rugger’ instead of rugby. However, this consistent invocation of the past often stifles what could have been a far fresher and more powerful reflection on the advancement of warfare, propaganda and social attitudes in the Information Age.
That said, the play presents some confronting ideas about the power of ideology and the resurgence of jingoism in times of desperation, encapsulated most effectively in the characters of Sam (Morgan King) and Charlie (Shania Graham). The unquestioning patriot Charlie, whose scrappy energy is captured very well by Graham, enlists out of a genuine nationalist passion inherited from her father, while the war effort offers a disillusioned Sam a sense of agency and meaning in his life. As the events of the play demonstrate, though, the war only encourages people to ‘give up everything to fight for nothing’. While Sam’s quest for agency often feels a little overstated, the message is clear enough, and King’s expression more than makes up for this. The entire cast, in fact, is able to defy the lack of visuals with their impressive use of tone and their distinct, emotive characterisation, allowing us to imagine the facial expressions we cannot see. Where this format seems to work best is in the longer monologues that give the actors more control over the auditory space they are occupying. One notable example is a monologue delivered compellingly by Rachel Parkinson as Victoria, a working woman struggling to hold her family together in the face of a cancer diagnosis, a demeaning job, and the war propaganda that threatens to take her son from her as it did her husband.
With only their voices at their disposal, overexpression does find its way into the performances, but the occasional exaggeration of tone is mitigated by the strength of the actors’ characterisation. The small cast of five are easily distinguished from one another without the need for any clunky first name usage. Lewis Fraser and Molly Anderson, in particular, manage to strike a balance between the subtle expression and strong characterisation needed for this format.
The actors are of course not simply left to fend for themselves in this radio play. In lieu of a physical set, Yeates incorporates ambient background noise to accompany each scene. While these soundscapes can feel repetitive, this repetition allows us to recognise where we are and which characters we are likely to hear with each new scene. These sounds can also contribute to the overall mood of certain moments, such as the ticking clock of Victoria’s house which incessantly counts us down to the departure of Sam and Charlie. A variety of instrumental and lyrical music was also used in scene transitions, which helped to maintain momentum and break up the dialogue in an emotionally evocative way. This was particularly effective when emotionally taut scenes were rounded off with the overwhelming swell of a classical orchestra. It would have been good to see this effectiveness across the board, as some of the transitions felt arbitrary and overly long, particularly considering there was no physical set to change. Even so, the production certainly succeeded in providing a sense of space and flow even outside of the live theatre context.
While its futuristic setting does little to comment on the current state of the world and its themes would perhaps fit better in the historical setting from which Yeates has taken so much inspiration, The Old Lie is an admirable example of ‘art from adversity’. It works with the current restrictions to produce a solid piece of theatre that touches on relevant themes for our ever-divided world, and offers some hope for the future of student theatre.
The Old Lie is available on Leeds Student Radio’s Mixcloud.