Hearing Percy Bysshe Shelley read aloud was a revelation

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

Percy Shelley, Reformer and Radical; Severus

BBC Radio 4

Last week I heard the actor Julian Sands give a virtuoso performance of work by Percy Bysshe Shelley to mark the bicentenary of the radical poet’s death this month. A couple of days later, I listened to a bit more Shelley, this time on the radio, and this time in the voice of Benjamin Zephaniah.

Hearing his verses read aloud is so much more intimate than reading them silently. You may be sitting in a crowd, but as Shelley’s words fall into your ears, it’s possible to feel that you’re having a private audience with him. Reading the same poems in an empty room can be comparatively distancing. Zephaniah said something similar when he described his first encounter with the poetry at school. He was given a bit of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to read quietly to himself and told to explain what it meant. He couldn’t. His teacher called him stupid.

There’s a lot of tension at the moment over the shake-up of the school syllabus and the removal of certain poets from the curriculum. Zephaniah’s two-part documentary, recorded before this particular debate began, felt like a necessary defence of the dead white man whose work he learned to love.

The title of part one, ‘The Original Dub Poet’, says more about the audience it was aimed at than the content of the discussion itself. Zephaniah’s main point here was that Shelley exercised the voice of protest. He wrote ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in simple ballad form to make it appeal to a wide readership and sided passionately with the working-class protestors who gathered in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, to demand parliamentary reform.

‘Good poetry has no age,’ said Zephaniah, ‘and no colour.’ Agreed. It was actually Red Shelley, Paul Foot’s barnstorming book on the poet’s socialist appeal, that turned Zephaniah on to his work. A copy had been lying on an otherwise empty bookshelf in a house he’d been staying in during his twenties. At 3 a.m. Zephaniah was still reading it. His obvious love for the sound of the poetry, its rhythm and drive, made this documentary a real pleasure to listen to. It was also good to hear from Shelley’s biographer Richard Holmes and other experts, including the most appropriately named Dr Bysshe Coffey.

A new drama, also on Radio 4, reimagines the period when Britain was home to Septimius Severus, the first African-born emperor of ancient Rome. Born in Lepcis Magna, Libya, in AD 145, Severus died in York in 211, and was succeeded by his sons, Caracalla and Geta. His mother’s family was Italian and his father’s was Punic. His skin colour is still debated.

Paterson Joseph, who plays the title role electrifyingly well, is also its co-writer with David Reed. His experience with the RSC is very much to the fore as he teases out the emperor’s paranoia in his dying days. Laid up with a foul-smelling gouty leg, his Severus fears that his wife Julia, played with intelligence by Bridgerton’s Adjoa Andoh, is ‘a viper’ trying to finish him off. It’s hard to blame him when you hear the empress prevail upon her husband’s private doctor to slip him a drug and amputate the limb while he sleeps.

‘And what of when he wakes?’ replies Sammonicus (David Mitchell), a welcome source of comic relief throughout. ‘Should I be stood there holding it aloft to wave him good morning?’ As so often, the emperor’s suspicions are misplaced, and the real trouble is brewing elsewhere. The way love blinds is the play’s subtlest theme.

The dialogue is occasionally rather heavy-handed. In an effort to show just how far the Severan dynasty ‘turned Rome inside out’, we’re given a history lesson in the geographical origins of the earlier emperors: ‘Fratricidal Domitian – Italian. Nero, the arsonist – Italian. Caligula – Italian. Claudius… French. Hadrian the builder was Spanish.’ Just to reinforce this, there’s even a cry of: ‘Our greatest emperors all hailed from outside of the heartlands!’ The Italians, meanwhile, are characterised as ‘baby-eating dribblers’.

I was nevertheless gripped by the power play within the family and the contradictions of Caracalla in particular. He is vain and misguided, terrifying, yet ridiculous. It’s to his father’s embarrassment that he insists upon being addressed as Caracalla, meaning ‘Cape’, an army nickname, when his real name is Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. If you know your classical history – and even if you don’t – you’ll appreciate the ominous foreshadowing of what is to come. ‘York is my own slow hell,’ sighs the beleaguered empress. She can only imagine how much worse things will be when her sons have lost their father.

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