Review: The Dark Tower, Britten/MacNeice, Orford Church, October 27

The Britten Weekend celebrates Benjamin Britten's work with radio. Photo: Snape Maltings

The Britten Weekend celebrates Benjamin Britten's work with radio. Photo: Snape Maltings - Credit: Archant

For this year’s Britten Weekend, Snape Maltings devised a programme exploring the composer’s work for radio. In particular, there was a focus on one of his most celebrated collaborations – with the poet Louis MacNeice in the radio drama The Dark Tower, first broadcast by the BBC in January 1946.

MacNeice, from Northern Ireland, was a member of the so-called ‘Macspaunday’ poets (with Auden, Day-Lewis and Spender), a prominent group in the 1930s with left-leaning views and occasional tendencies to intellectualism. MacNeice was less dogmatic in his politics than his colleagues and perhaps the most accessible to the general reader; his ‘Autumn Journal’ widely read and appreciated.

The Dark Tower was described by its author as a ‘parable play’ but he also warned against attempting concrete interpretations. The title derives from the poem by Browning ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. Young Roland has been brought up in the family tradition, to follow his father and older brothers on a quest from which none have returned. He is tutored and encouraged by, amongst others, a Sergeant-Trumpeter, a Tutor and particularly his mother. He sets off on his journey, meeting various people and temptations en route and at last reaches the Tower where the work ends (but speculation can continue).

There was an air of expectation and excitement as the performers assembled, more than a sense of the pioneering days of the Third Programme with speakers clutching scripts and clustering round microphones. Twelve voices took part along with a small orchestra of trumpet, percussion and strings under the baton of Robert Ziegler and overall direction of Robin Brooks.

A typically Britten-like trumpet call from the excellent Jude Akuwudike opened proceedings and the strings dug deep and dark to suggest the depths of the forest. The variety of personnel and personalities was well demonstrated by, inter alia, Harry Lloyd as Roland, with Lucy Robinson, Manjinder Virk and Adrian Scarborough as his mother, girlfriend and tutor, respectively. Coherence and interest were maintained throughout and if the work does seem rather set in its era it was good to hear it so well performed.


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Gareth Jones

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