Radioplay Review: A Special Kind of Dark

A year ago Caspar was locked up and declared criminally insane. Finally he breaks his silence to reveal a deadly tale of love and politics. But is he telling the truth? A psychological thriller by Adrian Penketh.

Directed by Toby Swift

***** Adrian Penketh has written a number of plays for Radio 4, including THE WATERBUCKS, which was shortlisted for the Imison Award, and an adaptation of Balzac’s THE WILD ASSES SKIN which was runner-up for the Prix Italia in 2011.

Caspar: Paul Rhys
Helene: Fenella Woolgar
Felix: David Schofield
Baptiste: Christopher Fairbank
Elodie Testoud: Matilda Ziegler
TV Director: Sam Alexander

This is, rarely, a play that may take more than one listen to fully appreciate. As simple as the summary above  sounds, this play is layered and complex in its narrative style, yet gives very little away. This works well in some respects: although Casper is for the most part our narrator, his telling is often so unrealistic that we question the reality of his other statements and claims of innocence. Yet the fact that the play repeats its beginning once the story has been told leads me to believe that the directors knew that what they had done was unclear and felt that it was necessary to remind the audience what they had heard so that they could finally join up the dots.

Other plays, such as the three-part drama (not reviewed here) earlier in the year Pandemic, managed to achieve this non-linear, layered narrative over the course of three days and three separate hours, each with different characters in different timeframes. So my primary criticism of A Special Kind of Dark is that it could not keep clear the story it was telling.

To unpick it is relatively simple: Felix, a candidate for First Minister, and his quiet poet wife Helene live in an apartment block near Caspar. He strikes up an affair with Helene after she comes to him to escape from her husband’s beatings. In between alarmingly cheerful dinner dates during which Caspar feels panicky and often quite ill, he is bombarded with odd and seemingly random questions from Inspector Baptiste. After deciding that he and Helene should run away together, he is invited round to dinner once more only to find that she will not acknowledge him as a lover. Feeling very faint and sick, he is taken home by Helene at Felix’s behest, only to wake the next morning to find Inspector Baptiste standing over him and the bloody remains of Helene in his bed. Off-stage, he is arrested, charged and – according to the blurb – declared criminally instance. Elodie Testoud becomes his psychologist, interviewing him in the intervening year about his actions, yet when he finally tells the story from his point of view – that it must have been Felix who murdered his wife and framed Caspar – she is visited by Baptiste to be questioned, and also informed that Caspar has committed suicide. Testoud takes as many of the recordings of her interviews with Caspar away with her, but is killed on a level crossing before she can take the matter any further.

The story is told, however, by beginning with Testoud. She is determined that Baptiste will not get his hands on the recordings, as she does not trust him, so she takes them with her. We join her in her car trapped on a level crossing between two vehicles which refuse to move. She is killed by the train. The narrative them jumps to Felix’s address as First Minister, promising to make level crossings safer for all. Then, back to Testoud, this time talking to Baptiste about Caspar’s death, and finally we hear Caspar’s voice as he relates the story of Helene’s murder to Testoud. It is after an atmospheric rendition of the story that we are returned to the ‘present’: hearing Felix’s address again, this time with a new subtext as we hear him/his voice telling Caspar that he ought to take his life and join Helene. Finally, Testoud’s death is replayed.

My feeling is that if we need to hear Felix’s address twice, then something is missing early on. Testoud tells us that she “would have to hear the story a number of times before drawing any conclusions”, indicating that the audience too must listen carefully, if not again, to the piece. On a second listen the plot is clearer, but exposition is slow, although the seeds of Felix and Casper’s connection are planted early on, it is often unclear who is being referred to and when the conversations are taking place. Tales within tales need to be carefully paced and perhaps this drama needed more thought to ensure that the scene is properly set. The dramatic beginning, as loud and brash as it is, perhaps spoils the pace in this way.

The question this drama asks is simple: was Felix so desperate to become First Minister that he murdered his wife and framed an unstable man so as to improve public perception of him, thereby necessitating the murder of Testoud – making it look like an accident, of course – with Baptiste by his side as a corrupt police officer? Or did Caspar invent the affair with Helene, the abusive marriage, and the voice of Felix in his head telling him to drown himself, and in fact murder Helene after luring her back to his apartment? Is Caspar insane, or manipulated?

Casper is an unreliable narrator, and it is through his narrative that most questions are asked. We are told that he is a fan of film noir, and then he begins his tale of meeting Helene with the line: “Being along made me happy. It was like a free seat on a plane. Then someone sat in it.” When it just so happens that Helene becomes a noir-like damsel in distress, Casper feels that he is able to play the role of hero, albeit unsuccessfully. Is this too good to be true? The dialogue is cinematic, confessional: “I wake up in the morning and I savour that first minute in which I’ve forgotten how much I’m going to hate every minute after that”, if it seems unrealistic perhaps that’s because it is supposed to be. The more Helene and Casper speak, the more the audience wonders whether they are an invention of Casper’s imagination. Phrases echo throughout: ISFJ, “the quality of mercy is not strained”, “You win” “I always do”, as does the quiet jazz in the background when Helene speaks.

Baptiste’s questions, too, are so bizarre that they could be imagined, but could also be misconstrued security vetting. The strange dinners with Felix and Helene are more confusing. Is Casper being poisoned, or is he merely nervous? Does Helene remember the meetings Casper remembers? Is Helene in on the plan? Is he merely being tested and manipulated into being Felix’s scapegoat? Felix’s lecture on the haiku is strangely reminiscent of Bateman’s essays on Genesis in American Psycho. But we don’t know if this is merely Casper’s perception, or whether we can trust him. By the end we are unsure whether Felix is with Casper in his cell – and whether he has the means to – or whether we are hearing the voice inside Casper’s head.

Noise is used well in the drama, the clamouring confusion in Casper’s head brilliantly shown in the final dinner scene, where music, dancing, Felix’s shouting, the sound of the pipes causing a cacophony that almost hurts. Felix’s voice lilts, throughout, seeming to dip in one ear and out the other – this causes a dizziness that surely intends to mimic Casper’s confusion. “He was not well”, we are told. “I need you,” Felix tells Casper, but we don’t know at this point what we are hearing.

I’ve written too much on this play, so I think what I mean is that it’s worth a listen. Surreal, loud and fascinating, I’d love to know what everyone else thinks!

3 thoughts on “Radioplay Review: A Special Kind of Dark

  1. I’ve just finished listening to this play and was intrigued to have a look on the Internet to see if there was anything written about it and found this, so I thank you for that, it would have been hugely frustrating otherwise.

    You’ve listed a number of points here that I hadn’t even considered such as the film noir references for example and it’s great to look at it from another’s point of view.

    I found the play interesting from a psychological perspective as Casper displays some common signs of suffering from a form of psychosis, if not actually psychotic, sleep deprivation and paranoia causes the confusion in recalling the events and also his curiosity around the meaning of ISFJ, which turns out to be something that’s easily explained.

    It would be difficult to see him as a danger to others though, although clearly displaying symptoms of a mental illness his suffering seems internal, demonstrated in his eventual suicide. Also if he was responsible then it would be difficult to understand the actions of the others when Casper is not narrating.

    It’s definitely worth another listen.

    • Thank you for your considered reply! I have to admit, I was a bit shocked not to find a review when I listened the first time around – interesting to hear that my ramblings are still the only thing out there.

      I listened again in the light of your comment, and while I still feel for Casper -as you say (which I hadn’t considered before) he displays many symptoms of sleep deprivation – I’m no closer to working out who killed Helene! I’m still highly suspicious of Felix, so I think that’s where my decision lies – where did you come down on this question?

  2. Typos:

    “declared criminally instance” => “declared criminally insane”
    “Being along made me happy” => “Being alone made me happy”

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