Things of Latvia: Latvian Radio Theater

Take note – story published 6 years and 9 months ago

In recent years I have developed an obsession, probably unhealthy, with 'Latvian Radio Theater'. These are radio plays exhumed from the archive and broadcast after 10 p.m. in order to fill up time that would otherwise be hard to fill. They deserve a wider audience.

Latvia is not the only country to produce radio drama, though it seems this most imaginatively stimulating of all art forms is on the wane in our obvious, visual age. But Latvian productions have a sound and flavor of their own which renders them distinctive and more and more enjoyable with every encounter.

Necessarily produced on a tiny budget by a small group of thespians and technicians, Latvian Radio Theater (LRT) productions have that reassuring feel of the old repertory company in which you meet the same voices taking on numerous roles week-by-week. What is lacking in budget is more than compensated for in the show-must-go-on attitude of all concerned.

Just as the voices are familiar, so is the method of putting the production together. This sounds more critical than I intend it to be, but basically all the LRT plays sound pretty much the same. Almost any one you care to mention will feature the following:

1) Whispered introduction by narrator which serves to provide vast amount of exposition (time, place, economic circumstances, principal dramatis personae etc).

2) Extensive use of 1970s-style squelchy synthesizer soundtrack (clearly influenced by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop).

3) Section in which someone speaks in a foreign language (usually German, often Russian, occasionally English) badly and adopts stereotypical characteristics of nationality in question.

4) Slow drumbeat signifying imminent conflict.

5) Section in which character is tormented by ghosts/demons/memories using heavy reverb and cries "Leave me alone!" or words to that effect.

6) Actor Gundars Āboliņš, preferably in multiple roles.

With these basic building blocks, practically any drama can be assembled, from ancient Greek classic to Shakespeare adaptation, to Rudolfs Blaumanis reworking. However, there is a notable dearth of comedies.

The presence of Āboliņš is key. He is exactly what one wants of an actor: fruity of voice, deliciously hammy of delivery, massively in earnest. More importantly he is also clearly ready and willing to turn his vocal talents in any direction demanded of even the clunkiest script. Need a Romantic lead? Gundars Āboliņš. Require a tyrannical Duke? Gundars Āboliņš. Searching for a gritty ploughman to wilt 'neath the labors of the noonday sun? Āboliņš is your man.

In one particularly memorable performance I even heard him narrating the cult novel Jelgava 94, a tale of teenage misfits in the scuzzy grunge scene of small-town Latvia. As fruity-voiced and over-played as ever, Gundars gave a truly remarkable reading of a seventeen-year-old boy smoking cigarettes in a toilet. Imagine if Sir John Gielgud had been cast as Alex in A Clockwork Orange and you get the idea.

On more than one occasion, driving at night, the Latvian Radio Theater has caused me to pull over into a lay-by, wind the driver's seat back, close my eyes and let their hard work and my imagination transport me to the gates of Troy or the trial and burning of some unfortunate witch. I'm not sure the police would accept this as an explanation for why I am in a lay-by at 11 p.m., but if they are on patrol at such a late hour there is at least a chance they will be listening, too. 

I got very excited a few months ago when it was announced that a brand new radio play was being produced based upon a work by the poet Aspazija. It was previewed on the day-time culture show Rondo, and promised to take a radical, modern approach to the sometimes staid world of radio theater. Then they played an excerpt. It featured a slow drumbeat, whispered exposition and someone pursued by goblins or similarly malevolent beings swirling around amid industrial-scale echo effects.

My ultimate desire is to write a radio play for LRT as a sort of hommage. I have it all planned out. It includes all the elements listed above, but my master stroke is to cast Gundars Āboliņš ... as HIMSELF.

He is held hostage in a recording booth by a demented radio technician and a suicidal synthesizer player and is forced to act his way out, reprising many of his great roles of the past. Think Theater of Blood - only on the radio and with way more synthesizers.

You can find out more about the Latvian Radio Theater HERE.

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