Sunday, November 21, 2010

The radio play. Emanuel.

I heard The Vanishing, a radio play by Oliver Emanuel, on BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago, and found it hauntingly beautiful and absolutely terrifying. A man, (played by the velvet-voiced Samuel West), searches frantically to find out what happened to his former girlfriend, who disappeared from a petrol station while they were on holiday, eight years before. Now I finally understand: what makes the radio play so much more suspenseful than any other medium is that it takes place entirely inside your head. On stage, on film, or on television, you depend on visual cues, facial expressions, occurrences happening stage left or in the background; they tell you more than what even the characters might know. The radio play is different: you only know what you are told, and you can't see what is coming. A bit like reading a novel, where you can only see the page you are on.

The Vanishing is adapted from a Dutch novel published in 1984 (there have been two films, one a disastrous American movie with a trumped-up happy ending). This version doesn't end happily. The next morning I woke up in the dark (the main character gets buried alive) and freaked out until I realized I was still wearing my sleep mask. But it left me eager to hear more from this young playwright, and a few more weeks went by before another radio play came along on Radio 4's Afternoon Play program.

Everything is still available for listening, at least for another two days. Commissioned by the BBC / Children In Need, the play comes from the time Emanuel spent as a writer-in-residence at Running: Other Choices (ROC), which provides a refuge and other support services to children under 16, in Glasgow. As a desperately wanted only child I have felt loved by my parents my entire life. Even in the darkest of times - and we have all have those moments of doubt and despair - I have always known this. It made it especially heart-wrenching to listen to this story of a girl who has run away from home, away from a stepmother who didn't want her and a father who didn't give a damn, and no one else to turn to. Sam, the counselor at the youth refuge, struggles with maintaining a connection with this girl, who at first responds only with growls and silence.

With every progress made, the fragile peace is quickly shattered, over the course of seven days, the maximum amount of time a child can seek refuge at the center. The girl is too wary, too hurt, too certain that any trust she places will be broken. She is not wanted, anywhere. "What will happen to your child if you die?" she asks Sam's wife, who is pregnant with their first child. Beth has no answer, only a kind of faith in the unknown and the hope that the unthinkable will never happen. "What do I have to live for," the girl later asks Sam. "Why shouldn't I kill myself?" Questions no 14-year-old should ever ask. "What do you want, then?" he asks her in return. "Everything."

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