Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Oracle of Delphi written by Scott Handcock and directed by Ed Salt

What’s it about: 430 BCE. Greece is in turmoil: Athens is at war with the Spartans, the Athenian women possessed by a horrifying cult... and then Bernice Summerfield strolls into town. Benny's on a desperate mission to save the Braxiatel Collection, millennia in the future. But she's only gone and lost her husband - last seen skinny-dipping somewhere near Delphi. She needs help, and it comes in the shape of a talkative bloke called Socrates. Together they must find Jason, survive the fate awaiting Athens and ensure that the future is saved. But divine powers are at work in Ancient Greece. Powers the archaeological record neglected to mention...The Oracle will see you now

Archeological Adventuress: Only Bernice Summerfield can say with some degree of accuracy that Socrates hit on her once! She should no better than to warn an important figure like Socrates of the oncoming plague that is about to hit Peloponnese. Even when she tells him that it is written in the future and cannot be avoided it was still a massive gamble. Benny grumbles that you have to have a willy to vote these days which really gets up her nose so she heads to the all male assembly in a terrible disguise and a really gruff voice. Her bloke name is…Testicles! Bernice likes to think that the reason she was exposed as a lady was because of her potent feminine charms, fine figure, razor sharp intellect and pert bosoms when (as Socrates points out so succinctly) it was actually that she was a bit gobby. She’s told she’s a strong woman and exactly how women should be in the future. She learns that Braxiatel thinks she is important – just what part does she play in his future plans?

Jason (bloody) Kane: Unfortunately they are 2000 years from the nearest bottle of sun block! The irony is that Benny swears that Jason will get her killed one of these days when the truth of the matter is quite the reverse. Trust Jason to stick his nose into history rather than just keeping his gob shut – he suggests that they let the Spartans into Athens which the leaders take to be a brilliant idea. Let them in…and slaughter them! Jason has a habit of getting involved where he shouldn’t and Benny wonders if that was how they wound up marrying each other. He winds up the property of the Mistress Megaira which might sound like an appealing prospect but she finds his hangdog expression more wearisome by the day and cuffs him about a bit if he speaks up without permission. Socrates orders them away to fight their own war and tells Jason to protect Bernice and if necessary avenge her.

Standout Performance: I love it when one off performers come into a range like this one and are so effortlessly good that it feels as though they have always been around. Paul Shelley is a great example as Socrates, not an easy role to play but he pulls it off by acting like any other bloke on the street and a very sweet and polite (if occasionally randy) ally for Bernice.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Sorry, you’re just learning to be civilised…’
‘Bollocks!’ – the last thing I ever expected to hear Socrates say!
‘Haven’t you seen any of the tragedies? You can’t change fate!’
‘When did a democracy ignore half of its people?’

Great Ideas: Recently Lady Megaira has been welcomed into their community and she has set up a female only cult (one which many of the male folk would desire open access!). Female infiltrators cannot be allowed to destroy their peaceful democracy. Poor Socrates, first he thinks he’s in with a chance when Benny tells him she is after a man (turns out it is her husband) and then when he reveals that he only has one bed (so she asks where he is going to sleep then). Some philosophers get no luck. There is a war coming that will make their flap look like a scrap between two fluffy kittens and the only way Benny can stop that is to find the Oracle of Delphi and get the answer to a very simple question. The Plague kills everything it comes across (‘We’re screwed then’ says Socrates). Braxiatel is described as ‘the tall man who holds time itself in his hands. A God protecting you.’ Megaira is a Spartan spy whose father was killed by the Athenians and her and her mother were dragged off to entertain the troops. She found something out in the desert that gave her the power of prophecy, a smooth stone that when touched ripped through her eyes and ears. To see the future nearly killed her. Her ceremonial wine contains a vaccine that contains immunity against the plague – Megaira will ensure that her Sisterhood are given a voice when she is the only person who can save their lives. The question of a cure defeating an historical event is out of the question and Bernice suddenly realises why – its not a cure, its an inoculation. It only works on people who haven’t been infected.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, bubbling brook, Bernice falling down a rubble strewn hillside falling apart, squeaky door, crackling fire, there are some hysterical and supernatural ceremonies amongst the Sisterhood, flies buzzing around a corpse and a dog whimpering, coughing.

Musical Cues: Every time there is a musical score that makes itself very apparent by being so memorable I look at the sleeve and nine times out of ten it is composed by David Darlington! He understands exactly what a story of plague prophecies and philosophical diatribes requires – bombastic, ominous music which suggests the horrors that are coming.

Standout Scene: A moment that came out of nowhere but really surprised me – Bernice realises that Jason is Megaira’s lapdog and as usual begins emasculating him until she realises that she has complete control over him. Megaira forces him to hold a knife to Benny’s throat and she begs him to let her live for her sons sake and pleads that she does love him. The way the tables are turned on Benny is unexpectedly powerful, how it twists to strip away all the bolshie pretence and get to her real feelings.

Result: One thing that I am very much in favour of is diversity within a series – I don’t mind a formula that a series adheres to as long as they try out different styles along the way. Series seven of Bernice Summerfield has really made an effort to show how far the format of the range extends and attempted some hard SF, a gothic mystery, a riotous parody of itself, a bawdy sex comedy and now it is an apocalyptic historical drama! Coming after a season of stories that were heard to tell apart this is the most refreshing change. The Oracle of Delphi is massively endearing to listen to and the mixture of modern day storytelling in an ancient setting proves to be a recipe for success for newcomer Scott Handcock. The relationship between Bernice and Socrates is strikingly written and it is terrific to experience the meeting of two great philosophers of their respective times coming together to solve this latest adventure. I love how this entire story has been written to set up the next one but manages to be a thoughtful, engaging story in its own right. There is a real impetus to this season that is extremely appealing, the writing is of a very high standard, the productions buoyed by some strong direction and atmospheric soundscapes and a running story which is slowly eking its way to the surface. Whatever changes Simon Guerrier made worked a charm and one of his strengths has been to bring in new writers to the fold and Scott Handcock is a great example. His eye for quirky dialogue and memorable characters is a gift and I’m pleased to see he will be writing for the ranges 12th season: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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