BBC Radio 4, 8-15 May 2011
Wordsworth's magisterial poem read on location in the poet's home in
Grasmere, Cumbria by Sir Ian McKellen, with specially composed music by John Harle.
Ostensibly the story of a speaker brought up in the rural way of life and aware of
the significance of this life in the formation of his character, McKellen's performance invested The Prelude with stately
grandeur, with his rounded dulcet tones, occasionally punctuated by a northern vowel. The actor also emphasized Wordsworth's
promotion of individuals, and their capacity to overcome adversity and emerge triumphant; they were not exactly masters of
the universe, perhaps, but secure in themselves and their capacity to deal with events, whether external or imaginary.
In Susan Roberts' production, The Prelude came across as a manifesto of
English romanticism in its emphasis on indviduals and the significance of solitude. As McKellen read these passages, his voice
qunetened as if recognizing that solutide should provide individuals with the opportunity for mental reflection and quiet
On other occasions McKellen lovingly wrapped his voice around Wordsworth's evocation
of a rural childhood, conjuring up an edenic world of pleasure that helped the poet develop a heightened consciousness of
his environment. This was not a sentimental reflection but a genuine attempt to understand how the past impacted on the present.
Childhood might be a time of supreme enjoyment, but in The Prelude it exemplified the point made by psychologist
Jean Piaget: dueing this period human beings learn to adapt to and assimilate diverse phenomena around them.
At the other extreme Roberts' producton understood the significance of mortality:
God decided when all creatures should come to the end of their lives and ascend to heaven. This was not something to be pessimistic
about; human beings are granted free will during their lifetime, while learning to accept the divine order of things. Those
who reject this tenet are doomed to perpetual torment. McKellen emphasized the significance of this point as his voice rose
to a crescendo, suggesting that the poet had achieved an apotheosis of self-awareness.
Harle's music provided both background and context to McKellen's performance. Sometimes
flutes and oboes provided an accompaniment that suggested bird-song; on other occasions horns could be heard rising to a crescendo
and falling, suggesting the progress of the seasons. Such devices reminded us of the poem's location in nature and
not outside nature in the Lake District.
What was most evident in this production was that The Prelude is
a dramatic poem that comes alive when read aloud with its astute use of tone and cadence. I loved it.