“They never used to do things like this,” a line from the opening minutes of The Arnolfini Portrait, has never been more true than when describing theatre today. With restrictions on live performances still stopping many productions from going ahead, there has been little for those in student theatre to do other than wait. And though the radio play could use some work, Industry Magazine may have found an alternative (yet equally artistically rewarding alternative) for live theatre with their first radio play, The Arnolfini Portrait.

It’s surprising that more student productions haven’t turned to radio plays. With free editing software, sound effects and a plethora of content online on how to create good audio material, radio plays are an easy and inexpensive genre for student productions to move into. Perhaps it’s the term ‘radio play’ that has put student producers off. A predecessor to the now popular podcast, radio plays had previously been a staple for many a long car journey. A quick glance at the Radio Times shows the wide variety of content and talent available on the radio. 

Stepping out into this brave new world, Industry Magazine brings us The Arnolfini Portrait. Written and directed by Tamsyn Chandler, the forty-minute play follows protagonist, Jean, during a trip to her local art gallery, where she is forced to confront her past by a mysterious stranger. Half thriller, half Truly, Madly, Deeply, the play at a glance is full of promise. The central character’s exploration of how we live our lives online and how this complicates the way we deal with our emotions shows Chandler’s daring to explore bold, topical subjects. The video wall that accompanies the radio play is a must-see. The split-screen of natural environments such as beaches and woodlands contrast sharply with the man-made world of European monuments and light shows that add that much-needed sense of space and escapism. It brings another dimension to the radio play that doesn’t distract the audience from the dialogue and enhances the turmoil and displacement of the characters. But, whilst there are interesting moments, it’s not always enough to hold the play together.

Chandler’s story, though engaging, is not helped by the play’s dialogue. The characters’ reflective speeches, which seem to want to fill the airwaves, appear misplaced against the more clunky dialogue. Lines such as, “I’m frightened”, “the city where I now live” and “It’s very famous and very expensive” stand out like a sore thumb and it’s hard to move past them when we return to the more melodious speeches. More frustrating is the lack of time we get with the characters before we move into the action. We never get the opportunity to care about Jean, played by Grace de Souza, who simply comes across as beleaguered. She seems like someone who clearly didn’t learn about stranger danger at school rather than the complex, emotionally tortured character she is clearly meant to be. Alexander, played by James Newbery, is the mysterious stranger who more often than not comes across as creepy and callous as opposed to omniscient. His continual direction for Jean to “Come into the next room” is more irritating than alluring and one wonders if the video wall could have played more of a part here. If we had had more of a chance to get to know the characters at the beginning, we might care more for them as the plot twists come. This also applies to the brief description we get at the end about the actual Arnolfini Portrait, which has the danger of appearing tagged on to the drama, rather than seeming like an intrinsic piece of the play, as the title implies it to be.

Creating COVID-safe theatre is not an easy task, and Chandler and Industry Magazine have pushed through and found an ideal alternative that can be equally challenging and rewarding artistically. More student producers should be turning to the medium that many actors and directors cut their teeth on. Having seen the rest of their work online, I’m excited to hear what other radio plays Industry Magazine could produce. But until then we will have to content ourselves with The Arnolfini Portrait and hope that Jean and Alexander are, if not happier, then at least free from the lockdown limbo we are left in.

The Arnolfini Portrait can be heard on Spotify at https://open.spotify.com/episode/4SuVyunjm3094g5qF9PtZA?si=k_VP35aORZS4yhGQvuq_vw. The accompanying video wall can be found on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eatOWCFp_BY

Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance...