Do people automatically associate radio drama with young people? Do the words “audio play” inspire visions of youthful vigour and dark narrative innovation? The most obvious answer to these questions is “no”.
However, the Wireless Theatre Company is starting to change all that with its new interpretation of Grimms’ fairy tales in collaboration with Roundhouse Radio. Broadcast directly from the Roundhouse by a new generation of radio talent aged 25 and under, Roundhouse Radio is producing five brand new radio plays performed for a live audience and recorded for podcasts. Included is a version of Hansel and Gretel, scripted by Sarah Jane Brion and directed by Amy Mulholland, who explain how they are revolutionising the radio play.
Why do you think people come back to Grimm’s Tales again and again? What makes them such a good stimulus for new work?
Brion: They’re timeless stories so they use all the basic character stereotypes. You have witches, innocent children, fair maidens, princes. Things that, when I was a child, were really inspiring to me and really exciting. I feel that the kind of timeless quality – the fantasy element – is something that just appeals. Something that’s quite magical and it just takes you away from the everyday, the mundane, the nine to five.
Considering how popular and well known the tales are, how do you approach the task of turning them into something new?
Brion: I know that when I first got involved in the project and spoke to the producer about it, Hansel and Gretel really excited me because I’d just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy and that’s a dark story all about hunger and starvation. That’s something while reading Hansel and Gretel that really interested me – the idea of food and of hunger. I’m a historian – I studied history – and I remembered all the famines in the Ukraine in the 1930s and it took me on a journey in my mind about need and hunger and food and the importance of food. They are all important factors in the retelling. It’s set in this strange world, an almost post-apocalyptic world.
Mulholland: And the way that’s developed in the way I’ve directed it is that you’re not sure from the start who is the villain and who is the victim. In this version, the witch has actually escaped from a prison camp. She’s been struggling herself so you’re not sure if, actually, Hansel and Gretel coming to her house and terrorising her puts them in the wrong. Different things come out as the story goes on but I like that ambiguity.
And what about setting and context? Is it modern? How would you describe the world of the play?
Mulholland: It’s non-specific but there are helicopters (laughs).
Brion: When I was writing it, I used a lot of direct sources from articles that I found about the Ukrainian famine. Some of the stories that the witch tells about the prison camp are real experiences that people had gone through. There is one story she tells about a prisoner being eaten, which is an almost entirely accurate first person account from a story I found about a prison camp.
What about the other performances? Are they similarly dystopian?
Mulholland: They’re all very different. The Robber Bridegroom is set in Soho and begins with a man and a prostitute. That’s set in a kind of modern world. The Maiden Without Hands is more classically based. It’s told through verse and folk song. The Brave Little Tailor is about a fashion design student and her mum and it’s a tale within a tale. Eventually the characters play out a story and it’s the original fairy story.
Was there a thematic brief set for all six performances?
Brion: All the potential writers were sent different stories and asked to come up with a short brief of what their retelling would be. They were selected down to the final six stories that impressed the producer the most. They’re all different. There were never any rules set. It was never X or Y. It was very much, “How would you interpret them and what will you come up with?”
Some people might think the radio play has a rather stuffy image – the stereotypical Radio 4 demographic comes to mind. What kind of audience are you trying to reach with these stories?
Brion: When I was first involved in the project, I knew I was writing for people in my age group – people in their late teens and early twenties. In my mind, that would be the ideal audience. However, because it’s Grimm, it could potentially appeal to all ages. Some of the elements might disturb a younger audience but then you could say that about the original stories. They’re very dark.
Mulholland: Particularly being at the Roundhouse, which is so involved with young people. Roundhouse Radio is where it will be broadcast and it will be downloadable as a podcast on iTunes. That element also aims it more at young people. Also, the projects are youth-led so there is that emphasis that they are made by young people, for young people. What we’ve tried to do is to make these dramas less stuffy. There’s a combination of live and pre-recorded music, sound effects, there’s also a beat-boxer. And we’re not making everything so obvious. One of the strengths of radio is that you can imply stuff. An audience’s imagination can be a lot worse than what we can show them. Some of our sound effects and our lines imply things that get you thinking in a certain way. I quite like that side of it as a medium, compared to stage. Having said that, this is visual as well.
Why have you decided on a live audience and how does it change the dynamic of the recording?
Brion: I think it’s nice, purely because you have a group responding to [the play] and it’s an honest response because they’ll be recorded there and then and it will be direct. That’s interesting and has its own kind of challenges.
Mulholland: With most of the sound effects being performed live and [the audience] being able to see real props, that’s quite exciting. We have someone being bashed on the head in my play and for that we have a watermelon and a frying pan. We’re trying to think of innovative ways to make sound. The audience might laugh at that.
So in a way, the studio audience get an entirely different experience to the radio audience?
Mulholland: Some of the sound will be changed post-production as well.
Why is the Roundhouse a good venue for this work?
Mulholland: The Hub is just a great space. There are lots of archways and tunnels. For these stories in particular, there are lots of shadows and a great acoustic.
Brion: And it has so much history to it! It’s such an old building. It used to be a railway turning shed. They talk about the ghosts of the Roundhouse. Apparently, you can hear the sound of the horses running round. It has that atmosphere and mystery to it – particularly The Hub. It’s a scary place in many respects.
Mulholland: And the fact that the Roundhouse does work with young people ties it in nicely because we’re all young people making this work and we’re aiming it at young people as well. It’s nice to be in a place that puts so much emphasis on working with young people.
A Very Grimm Christmas is being performed at the Roundhouse from Saturday 3 – Monday 5 December. Performances are now sold out, but more information on how you can download the podcasts is available from the website.
Image credit: Roundhouse