BBC Woman's Hour Drama
BBC Radio 4, 23-27 January 2012
Set in China in the mid-1920s, Lizzie Nunnery approached The Painted Veil as a coming-of-age melodrama, in which Kitty Fane (Sarah Smart), gradually acquired responsibility and self-reliance, while learning something about her husband Walter's (Nicholas Farrell's) true nature.
In the opening episode, director Pauline Harris established a clear vocal contrast between husband and wife: Walter spoke in clear, measured tones, speaking in the kind of manner a teacher might use while admonishing a naughty child. Kitty's voice was full of emotion as she described the sterility of her marriage in asides addressed direct to listeners. She enjoyed a relationship with the Charles Townsend (James Nickerson); the two of them breathed heavily as they kissed, as if they were desperately trying to discover the kind of passion they could never find with their respective partners.
As the adaptation progressed, so Kitty's view of life changed. Having decamped to the cholera-stricken province of Mae-Fan-Tu with her husband, she started work at an orphanage for children who had been abandoned by their parents due to the epidemic. Instead of complaining about her life, she approached her new-found responsibilities with refreshing optimism. She summed up her existence to date in an observation to fellow-Brit Waddington (Conrad Nelson): hitherto she had spent most of her existence in a duck-pond; now she was seeing the sea for the fdrst time.
However fate played cruel tricks on her - as signalled in this adaptation by dulcet chords on a stringed instrument. Her husband caught cholera and died very quickly; as he did so, he murmured the lines of a poem under his breath. It was only at the very end that Kitty realized he had been quoting Shelley's lines: "Lift not the painted veil which those who live/ Call life, though unreal shapes be pictured there,/ And it but mimic all we would believe/ With colours idly spread;" This quatrain summed up the point of Nunnery's adaptation: experience had taught Kitty to look beneath life's "painted veil" and perceive the truth lurking underneath. Walter had always loved her, but could never articulate his emotions; Charlie, on the other hand, loved no one except himself.
Harris' production was incredibly concentrated, packing a considerable amount of emotion and incident into five fifteen-minute episodes. Sarah Smart and Nicholas Farrell were convincing leads; their contrasting vocal tones suggesting the complexities of their relationship. This Painted Veil was one of the best Maugham adaptations I've heard in recent years.