Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, adapted by Sharon Oakes

Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, adapted by Sharon Oakes. Dir. Gaynor MacFarlane. Perf. Hollie Burgess, Adam Thomas Wright, Stuart McQuarrie. BBC Radio 3, 29 March – 5 April 2015. BBCiPlayer

I have to admit that I had my doubts about this production at the beginning. The plot did not seem to be getting anywhere, and director Gaynor MacFarlane’s use of a narrator commenting on the characters’ behavior seemed more intrusive than dramatically satisfying.

Yet perhaps sometimes it’s wise to stay with a production rather than reach too precipitately for the off-switch. As the drama unfolded, I understood once more how radio has a unique capacity to create alternative worlds and sustain them over a long period of time. “Fanny and Alexander” looks at life in early twentieth century Sweden through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, the eponymous Alexander (Adam Thomas Wright) – to such an extent that it becomes very difficult to separate fact from fantasy. But perhaps that’s not necessary; this is not a Chekhovian drama, where the author seeks to lay bare the characters’ frustrations in a small, self-enclosed world, but rather a celebration of the childlike power to create alternative worlds where he can communicate with ghosts.

It’s significant that the principal adult protagonists in this production are actors – Oscar (Justin Salinger) and Emilie (Lisa Dillon), whose preoccupation with the theater renders them virtually oblivious to what’s happening in the outside world. Very Chekhovian, apparently; at one point I was reminded of Madame Ranevskaya in “The Cherry Orchard.” But Oakes’s script put a positive spin on the material; Emilie might be bound up in a fantasy-world, but that can often prove a positive advantage, enabling her to reflect more deeply on her behavior, as well as that of her children Fanny (Hollie Burgess) and Alexander. She also passes on that vital imaginative quality to them, so that they are able to cope quite easily with life under the tyrannical authority of their stepfather (Mark Bazeley), the local bishop.

Moving effortlessly between various moods – melancholy, elation, serenity – enhanced by Carl Prekopp’s atmospheric music, “Fanny and Alexander” is a listening experience not to be missed, even for those already acquainted with the Bergman source-text. It proves once and for all the uniqueness of radio drama as an art form.