Sunday, July 2, 2017

Adapting Jules Verne for radio: AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, dramatized by Terry James (1991).  Dir. Janet Whittaker.  Perf. Leslie Phillips, Jim Broadbent, Diana Quick.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 19-22 Jun. 2017.

After listening to this colorful dramatization of the Verne classic, I understood the novel’s debt to classic picaresque adventures such as Don Quixote.  Phineas Fogg (Leslie Phillips) and Passepartout (Yves Aubert) are the Quixote and Sancho Panza figures, while Princess Aouda (Diana Quick) is Dulcinea.  Sergeant Fix (Jim Broadbent) is the classic fly in the ointment, pursuing Fogg worldwide but failing to arrest him, despite valiant efforts to obtain a warrant to do so.

In truth the story of pure hokum, dramatizing late Victorian English attitudes to other countries with wry humor.  Verne conceived Fogg as a curious middle-aged man of the confirmed bachelor variety, apparently indifferent to everything and everyone and obsessed with the idea of arriving in different ports on time.  It does not matter whether he is in India, Hong Kong, or the United States; he believes that everything can be bought and sold for his benefit.  In the modern era he might be perceived as a classic supporter of the current government.  Leslie Phillips plays him with Rex Harrison-like suavity, but his air of nonchalance is abruptly disturbed by Aouda’s presence.  To his evident astonishment Fogg discovers that he has amorous feelings for her; and the two finish the adaptation by marrying.  So much for the ice-cool Englishman.

Passepartout is played by Aubert as a rubber-ball like figure, whose capacity to overcome adversity is apparently limitless.  Some of his adventures are explicitly comic (such as when he joins a group of Chinese acrobats to make money), but he remains faithful to his “Master” throughout, even though he finds some of Fogg’s mannerisms distinctly eccentric.  A French author looks at the English, and considers them very strange.

Janet Whittaker’s production advances through two parallel narratives, delivered directly to listeners by Passepartout and Fix.  Passepartout keeps a journal; Fix his police officer’s notebook.  When these two documents are used as material to keep the ship’s engine going on the final trip back from New York to Liverpool, Princess Aouda takes over the narration.  The technique of direct address helps us to understand the characters’ attitudes to what seems a ludicrous undertaking.  Despite Fogg’s inexhaustible energy, the idea of traveling the world in eighty days seems preposterous.  It is a tribute to the characters’ resilience that the three narratives gradually alter in tone, as Passepartout and Fix realize that the feat will be completed, whatever the cost.

The four parts are constructed as a series of picaresque episodes linked with electronic music from Wılfredo Acosta that gives an otherworldly atmosphere to the production.  The attitudes and social mores might be explicitly Victorian, but the tale is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a testament to human ingenuity and to three indomitable spirits.