A half-hour radio play may not seem the most fitting format to explore Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legend of Britain’s first king. However, writer and director William Kemp uses the medium to great effect in his Brutus of Troy, creating a vibrant, snapshot-style narrative that highlights the human in the epic. Following in the tradition of literary storytellers from Spenser to Blake, and medieval chroniclers who treat this Roman connection as truth, he and his cast bring to life a legend unbound by time and space that celebrates Totnes’s unique position in British lore while highlighting the dangers of misremembered and mythologised histories.
Brutus (Sam Hunter) is victim of accident and favoured by fate; after accidentally killing his father while hunting he faces exile in Greece, where he finds favour with the King’s daughter and liberates Trojans held enslaved. Favoured yet again by Diana, the goddess of the hunt, he sets sail for Totnes, defeats giants, and becomes Britain’s first king. Brutus’ story is continually underscored by a repeating prophecy speaking of the doom he has and will bring to his blood family, but his and his people’s salvation comes through his bold conquering, beginning a line that Britain’s early modern historians truly believed stretched to their monarchs.
In Brexit Britain, with the national mythos and national sovereignty all-important and the question of Mediterranean migrants one that spurs the most toxic anti-EU arguments, the exiled Brutus and his countrymen fleeing oppression and founding Britain along the way subtly calls out the hypocrisy of nationalistic xenophobia. It is true that Monmouth’s tale has no factual basis, but the fiction that defined his understanding of Britain shifts to explore something new about today.
Playing into this blend of current events, national storytelling, and way time affects both is the fluidity between past and present in the radio play’s setting. Innogen speaks of hind hunts with Shakespearian eloquence, while Diana calls Brutus on a mobile phone while ordering an oat milk latte and girlbossing her way through a workday. This time merging, along with the double-casting and some deliberately similar voice acting (Innogen and Diana are both played by Eleanor Webster, with similar inflections), can lead to some confusion. Thankfully, Kemp’s script cleverly allows all speaking to say their names at least once in a scene, so listeners can catch up if they get lost. However, this similarity ultimately highlights the repetition of forces in Brutus’ destiny and their continually mutating forms in cultural legends and today’s nonstop media landscape.
The voice cast is uniformly strong, with clear voices that lose neither emotion nor plot points. The production design is small-scale and intimate, fitting the medium. Many of the larger, louder sections of the play – the fatal deer hunt, shore landings, the din of battle – is massively underpowered. Far from being a detriment, the easily separable noises emphasise the individual effort that creates one man’s ascension to the throne.
Brutus of Troy was created as part of the Tomorrow’s Transmissions project, supported by the Culture Recovery Fund. Brutus of Troy had its premiere on 30 March 2021 and can be found on the Soundart Radio webplayer via this link.
Words by Carmen Paddock.
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