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19/12/2014

Celebrating 'the Irish Chekhov': A Brian Friel Season

Friday 8 March 2013, 14:30

Caroline Raphael Caroline Raphael Commissioning Editor, Radio 4 & 4 Extra

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Editor's Note: Scroll to the bottom of the page for the schedule of talks, plays and stories across Radio 4 and 4 Extra, to celebrate Irish playwright Brian Friel

We really should not need an excuse to celebrate the work of one of the great playwrights of the 20th and 21st century. But, being broadcasters, we do. This year, 2013, Derry-Londonderry is the City of Culture and Brian Friel has long long associations with the city; here was the prompt to revisit his work. Friel has had his work produced all over the world. Plays, particularly Translations, appear on school syllabi. He has had research centres named after him and been showered with awards. In 2009 Benedict Nightingale, the theatre critic, wrote about Friel as ‘a Wise Man of the People of the Art and, maybe, the greatest living English-language dramatist’. The New York Times declared ‘he has dazzled us with plays that speak in a language of unequaled poetic beauty and intensity.’ Such plaudits. Such admiration. 

Brian Friel Getty Brian Friel

Often referred to as the Irish Chekhov, the first production you will hear is actually an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. New productions of some of his short stories sit alongside new stories from Derry writers who followed in his footsteps. And what else of his might we have in the archive that we could place on Radio 4 Extra? Of course an archive catalogue listing does not necessarily mean a programme exists; his earliest professional drama was for BBC Radio but sadly they were not kept. But other productions were. There were all the Ballybeg plays (his sequence of theatre plays about the small town of Ballybeg; Ballybeg is Irish for ‘small town’), further short stories, a feature about the ground breaking theatre company he set up in Derry with Stephen Rae, Field Day, and most exciting, intriguingly, several talks that he had recorded decades ago for BBC Northern Ireland Schools broadcasting. Brian Friel does not give many interviews, there have been documentaries about his work in which he never appears, so I urge fellow devotees to put aside a small amount of time and listen to them. And if you don’t know his work listen anyway, as a primer. 

Here is the man himself talking in the 1960s and 1970s about his childhood, the power of memory (a theme that runs throughout his work), school, his family, the city of Derry. His antipathy to interviews is most wittily and self-deprecatingly illustrated in the talk Self Portrait. Friel asks himself ‘the interviewer’s chestnuts’ such as - which of your plays are your favourites, and replies, none of them. The answer to ‘Do you think the atmosphere in Ireland is hostile or friendly to the artist’ is  ‘Err…I'm thinking of my lunch.’ He questions what autobiography is, how a memory can have a truth of its own even if you know it is untrue. 

Derry-Londonderry Derry-Londonderry

For all our technical wizardry, for all the games we can play with sound, listening to a beautiful single voice summing up and questioning a moment in time with almost poetic phrasing, a delight in words and a certain wicked wryness, can still be mesmerising. 

We have shaken the dust off these old recordings and hope you listen to them with the plays and the stories. 

Hedda Gabler: BBC Radio 4 Saturday 9th March 2.30pm
This is the Old Vic production, starring Sheridan Smith and Adrian Scarborough. Friel's version throws new light on its two female archetypes - Hedda, the beautiful trapped and ultimately doomed heroine; and Thea, the less socially admired, yet much freer, new woman. Both women ultimately take their fate into their own hands, in very different ways.

Faith Healer:  BBC Radio 4 Extra Saturday 9th March 10.00pm
Written in the late 1970s, Brian Friel's Faith Healer is regarded as a modern masterpiece and a major influence on modern Irish writing. Its theme of memory, the stories we tell ourselves and the nature of truth run through all his work. In Faith Healer, he explores how these sometimes only shed a half light on truth. Starring Owen Roe, Lia Williams and Phil Daniels. Frank thinks his faith healing powers are waning and he has returned to his native Ireland in the hope of restoring them. 

Self Portrait: BBC Radio 4 Extra Sunday 7.10am & 1.10pm
Brian Friel recorded this talk, a ‘fragment of autobiography’ in 1971. A shy man, Friel rarely gives interviews and this talk is a rare glimpse of the man himself. 

The Green Years:  BBC Radio 4 Extra Sunday 11th March 10.45am & 9.45pm
This talk by Brian Friel has not been heard since 1964. It is Friel’s beautiful lyrical memory of moving to Derry at the age of 10, in 1939. 

Staging Ireland:  BBC Radio 4 Extra Sunday 11.30am
The story of Field Day, the new radical theatre company launched in Derry in 1980 by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea amid a political climate of riots and looming hunger strikes. The first production was Friel’s Translations which can be heard later on Radio 4 Extra. 

Translations: BBC Radio 4 Extra Sunday 10th March 1.30pm
It's the summer of 1833. In a hedge-school in Donegal, the schoolmaster's prodigal son is about to return from Dublin. With him are two army officers. Their aim is to create a map of the area, and, in the process, replace the Irish place-names with English equivalents. It's an act with unexpected and violent consequences. The cast includes Samuel Barnett, Dermot Crowley and Mark Bazeley.

Brian Friel Stories: BBC Radio 4 Extra: Monday to Friday 11.00am & 9.00pm
5 short stories about the everyday faiths, fears and hopes of his characters.  Full of make-believe, illusion and self-deception, Friel's stories are stories of resilience and dignity, told with humour and warmth.  The reader is Adrian Dunbar.

Maiden City Stories: BBC Radio 4 from Friday 8th March 3.45pm
Three new short stories, specially commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to celebrate Derry-Londonderry's status as UK City of Culture, from some of the city's leading literary figures. Seamus Deane, Jennifer Johnston and Brian McGilloway each bring us a new short story, recorded in front of an audience in the city's Verbal Arts Centre.

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