At the National, the past really is a foreign place

Lucy Kirkwood’s new play The Welkin isn’t quite speaking everyone’s language; the race to replace Nicky Morgan is on; and yet another Desert Island love-in

“Dodgy Suffolk accents making too many lines inaudible.” “Dense accents which mean a very attentive ear is needed.” “A bewildering array of iffy voices.” “The accents led to a degree of incomprehensibility.” Just a few comments from theatre critics about the National Theatre’s recently opened The Welkin, and I spotted similar remarks in several other reviews.

And it’s not just the media criticising the accents in Lucy Kirkwood’s new play, set in mid-18th-century East Anglia. I missed about a fifth of what was being said – a shame, as it’s a fascinating story, well told, centring on a jury of 12 “matrons” who must judge whether a pregnant woman, convicted of murder, should be hanged. Several friends have also complained to me. One said he understood only “20% of the dialogue”, before being helped in the interval and after the play by his companion “who got 90%”. Another reckoned she understood about half, before buying the play’s text to fathom the rest.

I appreciate the importance of authenticity in language, but the audience, too, must be taken into account. The National is one of very few British theatres with a voice department, but maybe this meant it was too obsessed about what it reckoned were the correct sounds of East Anglia 250 years ago. The theatre tells me it has received just a tiny number of complaints. Maybe, but I suspect that its very middle-aged, middle-class audience mainly grumble to themselves and their pals. The National Theatre adds that it has made some adjustments to pronunciation and that “we understand that strong and unfamiliar accents can be tricky to tune into”. Surtitles, then?

Esther McVey, Housing Minister, leaves N0.10 Downing Street after attending a Cabinet Meeting. Politicians in Westminster, London, UK - 07 Jan 2020
Esther McVey: the government’s next media secretary? Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Before Christmas, rumours were that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would be axed. Digital would go to Business, Culture to Education and Sport to Health. But Media? Who knows? And that is part of the problem, since the Media bit of the DCMS has become the most pressing, with this government having just announced a consultation on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.

Then, next year, it begins the midterm charter review. Tony Hall is wise to leave as director general by early summer, before even more shit hits the BBC’s proverbial fan. So I reckon the DCMS will survive, even though Nicky Morgan will depart as secretary of state in the imminent government reshuffle. John Whittingdale, a noted BBC basher, hankers after the job he did before in 2015-16. But I wonder if Boris Johnson might want to bring in a woman. Esther McVey, as a former ITV presenter, might fancy herself as the perfect fit.

On today’s Desert Island Discs, Lauren Laverne’s castaway is Zoe Ball. In other words, the presenter of 6 Music’s breakfast show (Laverne) chats to the presenter of Radio 2’s breakfast show (Ball). Desert Island Discs is too often keen on plugging BBC programmes and presenters. In the past year alone, castaways have included Bob Mortimer, Louis Theroux, the writers Russell T Davies and Heidi Thomas - all of them linked to BBC shows or productions. All rather too chummy.

This article was amended on 14 February 2020 to remove the name of a guest who, it was wrongly suggested, appeared on Desert Island Discs while promoting a BBC production.

Contributor

Richard Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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