BBC Radio 3, 14 December 2008
At one level, John Milton's dramatic poem Samson Agonistes depicts the struggle of Samson (Iain Glen) to overcome the Philistines. As in Greek drama, a three-person Chorus (Tim Bentinck, Simon Treves, Sean Barrett) comments on the action, both guiding listeners as to how they should read the poem and introducing what will happen next. On another level, Samson Agonistes depicts the struggles of the poet trying to write while virtually blind. The Biblical story functions as an allegory of artistic creation. Samson's physical strength corresponds to the poet's verbal strength; if either of them lose their faculties, they will be reduced to nothing. They try to show off their powers at every opportunity - as, for example, in the poem's lengthy speeches, where the poet makes inventive use of the iambic pentameter form.
With Dalila's (Samantha Bond's) entrance, however, the poem's tone alters. Rather than relying on his own strength, Samson blames her for his failings; she tempted him into becoming "ungodly" - i.e. weak. Although Dalila protests her innocence, Samson cannot acknowledge that his failings are entirely self-created. At this point Samson Agonistes comes dangerously close to misogynist fantasy, which seems rather at odds with the poem's stated purpose.
However, once Herapha (Philip Madoc) comes on the scene, casting aspersions on Samson's strength - both mental and physical - the protagonist recovers himself. Despite overwhelming odds, Samson not only escapes from the Philistines, but knocks down the walls of Gaza and thereby frees the Israelites. He acquires an inner determination that resists criticism and at the same time inspires him to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his people. As reported in the third person by the Chorus, his struggles only acquired a quasi-journalistic immediacy, with the actors delivering their lines breathlessly, as if they had come straight from the scene of Samson's struggles. The last half-hour of John Tydeman's production was particularly gripping, with the Chorus's narrative conjuring up a scene similar to the climax of Ridley Scott's film Gladiator (2000), as one man vanquishes the forces of destruction ranged against him. However Samson Agonistes assumes an extra dimension of meaning, as we recall that Samson's triumph is also the poet's triumph, as he finds sufficient mental and physical resources to complete his last major work.
Tydeman celebrated the power of the imagination - not only of Milton himself, but also of his cast, whose dramatic delivery transformed the poem from a dry-as-ditchwater account of Biblical events (as I remember from my undergraduate days) into a vivid, compelling narrative.