Monday, 3 January 2011

I, Claudius: Messalina (radio adaptation)


This is the final episode of this radio adaptation of both I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which has been mostly excellent, if a little rushed. These are two long and complex books, and they've been squeezed into six hours, with the plot in places jumping ahead in uncontrolled spurts, in others slowing down to explore details of Claudius' life in surprising depth, somtimes at the expense of other sub-plots. This can be especially problematic on radio, where things need to be made clear through sometimes lengthy dialogue without visual aids; it will be interesting to see whether the film version currently in development is able to cut the story even further without losing all sense of what's going on for anyone not familiar with the history. I've gone through this episode in a fair amount of detail, but any unexplained plot elements will be covered in the TV reviews.

The episode opens with Claudius' wranglings over his new harbour at Ostis, showing him in control of his advisors, taking charge firmly and ruling, it seems, fairly wisely. This would probably come as something of a surprise to Suetonius and Tacitus, who paint Claudius as entirely ruled by his freedmen, advisors and wives. Messalina's job as guardian of public morals is pretty amusing, given Messalina's own character, while Claudius' relationship with his nieces is introduced very early in the episode, which is rather effective given his later relationship with Agrippinilla (Agrippina the Younger) - here, it seems that although he was not having an affair with his nieces, he was quite close with Lesbia at least, whom Messalina resents and therefore, naturally, destroys.

Whereas the television adaptation shows us Messalina's plotting and bad behaviour from the beginning of Claudius' reign, the radio holds back. We hear her accuse Lesbia of spreading rumours about her (Claudius has heard no such gossip - it is all true, of course) and we hear her insist that Lesbia is plotting against Claudius but we do not hear what she's really up to. A lot of the time, we only hear what Claudius hears, without the hindsight that peppers this section of the novel, though eventually this regret and the awareness of the narrating Claudius of how things worked out creeps back in so everyone knows to expect Bad Things from Messalina, though still without the detailed knowledge of her plans that the television adaptation provides. (This also means, of course, that we don't see her sex competition with a prostitute, which wouldn't really work on radio anyway).

Messalina and Claudius are explicitly compared to Augustus and Livia, but it's interesting to see the novel and radio versions staying with Claudius' perspective so closely. Whereas we were either privy to or at least heavily hinted at about most of Livia's schemes and murders, we know that Messalina is up to no good only from Claudius' occasional comments on how foolish he was and from guessing what's behind her plans. This puts us in the position of Augustus, ignoring the warning signs and continuing on in blissful ignorance, rather than staying with Livia's perspective, as the earlier sections had. When Claudius eventually discovers the truth, he compares himself to Augustus discovering the truth about Julia, but Messalina's plans go beyond just adultery, as Narcissus points out, which makes Livia a better comparison - though Livia lacked Messalina's sexual ambitions.

The invasion of Britain is skimmed over very quickly, to reflect Claudius' lack of interest - which actually seems to be a bit of a shame. I would have thought it would be reasonable to assume that Claudius, for whom this was his greatest military acheivement, who named his son Britannicus and was declared a god in Colchester, might actually take an interest in Britain. The quick way Britain is dismissed seems especially ironic, given how other stories set in Rome and written by British writers sometimes over-emphasise the importance of Britain or shoe-horn it in where it isn't needed. I, Claudius, however, true to its focus on the relationships between the members of the Imperial family, is in a hurry to get back to Messalina and her affair with Mnester the actor.

Messalina's eventual downfall is very effectively presented, and is really quite scary and unsettling. First, Calpurnia has to risk a flogging, telling Claudius the truth, then Narcissus drugs Claudius to make him malleable and eerie strains of music in the background demonstrate his confused state of mind as Narcissus and Calpurnia, insisting that if they don't act, they'll all die, order the arrest of everyone at Messalina's wedding. They then get him thoroughly drunk and Claudius goes to sleep intending to give Messalina a fair trial in the morning, but Narcissus arranges her execution that night (Graves' way of getting around the fact that, whatever she'd done, Claudius' execution of his wife without even seeing her or talking to her is not that nice a thing to do). We then hear Messalina's attempt to kill herself and her dying gasps as the guard kills her instead. The juxtaposition of this and the news that Claudius is being worshipped as a god in Britain is especially effective (and comes with a sly reference to Seneca's The Pumpkinification of Claudius, which is nice).

Messalina and her end, and Claudius' feelings about his new power and his current position as emperor despite his republican ideals, take up most of the episode. It is his experience with Messalina, and guilt over his absolute rule and her ability to kill people in his name, that directly drives Claudius to his plan to give Rome another dreadful emperor, to persuade everyone to overthrow the monarchy. Here, his plan to marry his niece comes entirely from himself (Pallas is not in this adaptation and Narcissus is surprised to find Claudius wanting to marry again). He also, having decided that Britannicus and Octavia are not his children, decides not to see them for a while, solidifying the wedge between him and Britannicus.

The final parts of the episode, then, go into Claudius' marriage with Agrippinilla and adoption of Nero as his heir - a section I've always found rather less plausible than the rest. (This is not to imply that the rest of the story is historically accurate, but I do think that the rest of it is all historically plausible, if unlikely). I find the whole plan to create a terrible emperor to topple the monarchy deeply implausible, even assuming Claudius had republican tendencies (which he probably didn't) and even if it were true, it would be highly irresponsible considering how many people will die. That, of course, is down to Graves rather than the adaptation specifically, but this adaptation does not do much to make Claudius seem more sympathetic at this point, though it does explain his justification for the plan rather better than the TV adaptation did, due to the direct link it draws with Messalina. It really can't salvage this aspect though, especially when poor Calpurnia is murdered, something left out of the television version - we have grown to like Calpurnia and her death is almost certainly, in this interpretation, the direct result of Claudius' marriage with Agrippinilla. This last murder, and foreshadowing of Britannicus' and Octavia's later deaths, really does have the effect of removing most remaining sympathy for Claudius.

We cannot see Claudius' death on radio, of course. After his final attempt to persuade Britannicus to flee, he tells himself to write no more and ponders how to preserve the manuscript. He considers how another historian will write their version and we hear a sudden shift in narrator, as a fresh voice describes Agrippinilla's murder of Claudius with poisoned mushrooms - Tacitus, reading from the Annals. (Actually, it's Sam Dale, who played Sejanus and Athenodorus, but he uses a sufficiently different tone that it feels fresh). We end on Nero's declaration that mushrooms are the food of the gods.

The swift coverage of Claudius' marriage with Agrippinilla works surprisingly well, as it is tied firmly in to the fall-out from Messalina's end and therefore seems to be part of the same story in a way that earlier leaps in time did not. I was very surprised, however, to hear no mention of Herod Agrippa's eventual fate. His warning from the end of the last episode is referenced, but his rebellion against Claudius and conviction that he was the Messiah is left out entirely, which, given the dramatic importance of his earlier warning and Claudius' feelings of isolation, seems a little odd.

This was an effective end to the series which managed to convey the growing darkness and descent into depression that is present in the novel rather nicely, through the music and general tone. The overall plot of the episode more or less hangs together, in a way that some previous episodes haven't always, and the switch to Tacitus at the end works very well, though it's a shame he's unidentified. I would, perhaps, have preferred a little more Britain and Herod and a little less Messalina, but that would have ruined the careful focus of the plot, on Claudius' sense of shame at his own excessive power and his complete disillusionment. All in all, this was a satisfying end to an excellent, if slightly rushed-feeling, series.

2 comments:

  1. Shame about the prostitute contest; I was rather looking forward to that!

    And, really, it's hard for me not to sympathise somewhat with Claudius's rather Trotskyite plan to give the people something so awful they'll have no choice but to revolt and restore the Republic. Not unlike voting for the Tories in an effort to bring about the socialist revolution. Or maybe voting for Sarah Palin in the US next time around.

    But, of course, as Jefferson noted, 'mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed'. Thus the current situation.

    Anyway, looking forward to actually listening to the last few episodes, having scarfed them off the BBC iPlayer!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I guess if Sarah Palin wins the next Presidential election, we'll know why ;)

    ReplyDelete

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