The lockdown boom in audio plays: 'it's drama the pandemic can’t touch'

Mike Bartlett, Alan Ayckbourn, Adjoa Andoh and other top theatre-makers reflect on why listening to drama is perfect for our times

In the first lockdown, many noticed how the roar of traffic was replaced by birdsong. If the pandemic has given us a renewed appreciation for listening, then some of the UK’s leading theatre-makers are turning – or in many cases returning – to audio drama, and pushing the limits of the form. It helps that audio plays can be made quickly and relatively cheaply, incorporating topical issues. Previously staged productions are now being offered in audio form, too, the most recent of which is The Whip by the RSC. Is this all leading to a new golden age of audio drama or merely filling in for the “real thing”? And will we listen differently when we eventually return to auditoriums?

The playwright Simon Stephens says our theatrical tradition valorises listening above all else. “Samuel Pepys wrote about ‘hearing’ a new play at the Globe, not ‘watching’ it. There is something deep in the English mentality and its relationship to theatre and sound. The noun for the collection of people coming together to engage in theatre is ‘audience’. The etymology of that word denotes listening. In other languages, they talk about ‘spectators’.”

Last year, Stephens adapted José Saramago’s dystopian novel Blindness into an installation at London’s Donmar that created intimacy by delivering its story through binaural headphones. Stephens felt it a “liberation” to reconceive the play as a sound experience rather than a socially distanced theatrical performance. “For me there was something theatrical about the journey to the theatre to see Blindness [in a time of lockdown], and then the extraordinary experience of strangers coming to listen together. There was something beautiful, almost religious, about that.”

Mike Bartlett
Mike Bartlett. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Mike Bartlett believes audio drama is perfectly suited to our times, as we are “absorbing culture in quite a one-on-one way. We’re bingeing on TV series on our own, making Zoom calls on our own, we have got headphones on a lot. Leaning into the intimacy of that is interesting”. Last autumn he wrote Phoenix, a satirical drama inspired by Dominic Cummings, and he is beginning another audio project. “Artistically, it offers a more satisfying outlet for dramatists right now. It is the one form of drama the pandemic can’t touch, which means we’re not held back. You can do a fully formed piece of audio that would be the same as if we weren’t in a pandemic. You don’t make any compromises.”

Bartlett loves the necessary collaboration between writer and listener: “They’re your partner and what you’re doing is sitting in the corner of their room, whispering half the story in their ear. You’re not telling them what something looks like or what the actor’s face is doing. They’re conjuring that.”

Phoenix was written, recorded and edited in 10 days. The audio play can offer a rapid response to current issues and bring connection in a time of lockdown atomisation. “There are ‘great reckonings in little rooms’ happening across the country. I bet the sound of the dialogue in every house has changed because of the stress that every single person is under. How has the air in our living rooms changed because of this? I would love to find a way of writing about that.”

Tamzin Outhwaite and Fiona Button starred in What a Carve Up!
Tamzin Outhwaite and Fiona Button starred in What a Carve Up! Photograph: press

Henry Filloux-Bennett, artistic director of Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley theatre, embraced audio early on in the pandemic. Creating drama in lockdown demands resourcefulness from theatre-makers, he thinks, and is an opportunity to reach beyond the comfort zone. He has tried to create interesting hybrids – his audio adaptations of David Nicholls’ novel The Understudy and Nigel Slater’s memoir Toast were accompanied by animation. His version of Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! was not audio but borrowed elements from podcasting.

One thing that struck him at the beginning of the first lockdown was the poor technical quality of many audio and online plays: “People are realising now that if we want to engage with people online, on screen or on audio, the quality has to be right up there with the very best podcasts or the content you could watch on Netflix, Amazon or BBC iPlayer.”

Alan Ayckbourn made BBC radio dramas in the 1960s and used that training to record and perform in two audio dramas last year. Anno Domino had been written for the stage, as yet unproduced, but he reconceived it and with his wife, the actor Heather Stoney, performed all its parts. Haunting Julia, a play from 1994, was performed the same way, using the technical wizardry of sound manipulation. “I thought it’d be good to adapt because it’s very verbal and it’s a ghost story. We never see the ghost in the best ghost stories – it’s all in the power of suggestion.”

Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney in their garden at home in Scarborough.
Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney in their garden at home in Scarborough. Photograph: Tony Bartholomew

This output, he says, was partly born of his love of sound: “I’ve always done my own soundscapes for all my plays.” He has written eight plays during the pandemic, all for the stage, and is keen to return to the theatre to see them brought to life.

The director Ian Rickson also speaks of being “exiled” from theatre. His podcast, What I Love, features guests in empty theatre spaces. “The rise of the podcast is a cultural phenomenon that we are still catching up on, he says. “Audio-book sales are rising and people are increasingly seeking the private, intimate world of audio to meet some deeper need. I’m convinced that this need is to combat how pacifying and overwhelming the screen is becoming, and how much it threatens to rule us.”

All the same, it is a mistake to think that live theatre and audio drama sit in two separate camps, says producer Ellie Keel. “It’s more of a Venn diagram: there’s a bit in the middle where they meet, where there is symbiosis. The audio work I’ve done will inform my theatre work [after lockdown].”

Keel’s production company joined forces with 45 North to create the series Written on the Waves, which comprises eight audio plays designed to spark an imaginative and sensory journey for the listener, and features actors including Adjoa Andoh. “The series was absolutely a response to the pandemic. It was a good way of employing lots of people. As a young company, we wanted specifically to work in an environment where you could have relatively new writers working with very experienced actors.”

Adjoa Andoh
Adjoa Andoh. Photograph: Piers Allardyce/Rex/Shutterstock

Actors welcomed the opportunity, observes Keel. “They dived into it because they felt it was a safe space, I think. We felt we could do unsafe things in the safe environment of audio and push the boundaries.”

From the actor’s point of view, there is a distinct art to performing an audio role, says Andoh, who has been involved in radio dramas since the late 1980s and trains other actors for the medium. “I have always said the microphone is the listener’s ear, and all you have as an actor is your voice.” Performing on radio will often require proficiency in several accents, she says, and much of its art lies in giving the voice nuance.

The rising popularity of podcasts has led to the rebirth of audio plays, she thinks, and the pandemic has also reminded us of its value: “We have remembered we can tell stories in a different way.” But while some suggest that the pandemic has forced the audio play out of its dusty Radio 4 enclave, and dragged it into the contemporary age, Andoh says its evolution had been taking place many years.

The subject matter of radio plays has become more inclusive, and it has brought liberation for actors of colour who might otherwise be typecast on screen or stage, she adds. “I was in a radio adaptation of Oliver Twist in 1992, and I played Nancy. I would never have been given that role on screen – the casting would just not have happened. It can be so freeing.”


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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