This new adaptation of Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon bring an absorbing retrospective perspective to BBC Radio 4’s current Dangerous Visions season. Koestler’s work was a damning and unflinching critique of the Moscow “show trials”, a series of murderous purges of the Russian Bolshevik cadre instigated by Joseph Stalin between 1936 and 1938. Koestler had been an activist in both the German and British communist parties, but became disillusioned by the horrors of Stalinism and went on to become a vociferous critic of the Russian state. The central focus of the novel is the devastating consequences of totalitarianism, a theme that would also inspire other writers of the era including George Orwell.
Simon Scardifield’s new audio adaptation draws on Koestler’s original manuscript, only recently rediscovered after being lost when the author fled Paris in 1940, as the German army invaded France, to present a tense and harrowing distillation of the novel’s key premise. Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, an administrator with a long history of obedience and loyalty to the party, is arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the regime. As happens to so many of his contemporaries, someone who served as a willing enforcer of the party’s will now finds themselves locked up for “treachery”.
Two officials are involved with investigating his case: Ivanov, a fifty-something fellow comrade of many years’ standing, who urges Rubashov to confess his crimes regardless of his guilt in order to save his life; and Gletkin, a fierce young ideologue determined that Rubashov must pay the ultimate price for “betraying” the party’s leader.
A narrator tracks Rubashov’s life story, as the story switches between his incarceration and interrogation and his earlier work as a committed “party man” and later as a dutiful state official. Convinced he is insulated from risk, Rubashov had been willing to mock the shortcomings of the regime at work (where he starts an affair with a secretary he later abandons after her own arrest) and at dinner parties (where he bemoans the corruption of the revolution’s ideals). After enduring imprisonment for a time, Rubashov agrees a deal with Ivanov; but events will soon mean that Rubashov faces a far grimmer fate.
Strong performances and convincing sound design make this an impressive realisation of some challenging source material, but as all this suggests, Darkness at Noon makes for some demanding listening. This is no work of fantasy. Although Koestler never refers to the Soviet setting of his novel directly, there is no question that the author was presenting a bleak allegory: a condemnation of the wholesale liquidation of the supposed “enemies” of Stalin’s rule that had just engulfed the USSR.
Those who prefer their dystopian drama with a more speculative, otherworldly twist may find the real-world historic setting of Darkness at Noon makes for a less conducive listen. But it’s good to see the new Dangerous Visions season turn its attention to a variety of dramatic dangers, both real and imagined. And few settings evoke the spectre of calamity more acutely than one in which a revolution born in hope sets about devouring its own children.
DARKNESS AT NOON / BBC RADIO 4 / WRITER: ARTHUR KOESTLER / ADAPTED BY: SIMON SCARDIFIELD / DIRECTOR: SASHA YEVTUSHENKO / CAST: MATTHEW MARSH, POPPY MILLER, STEPHEN BOXER, SAMUEL JAMES / BROADCAST: 1 JULY / AVAILABLE ON BBC IPLAYER