by Anita Sullivan
Mandrake tree with human hands


A old woman threatens her new neighbour with a scythe when he tries to cut down a tree ajoining their houses. The woman, Irene, claims that her husband is buried under the tree... but the tree is clearly over a hundred years old. Social worker Ruth Wilcox intervenes. As she gets to know Irene she is drawn into a strange and magical tale that will change her life forever.

'Mandrake' was a Sweet Talk production, broadcast October 2008. It was produced by Karen Rose and directed by Anita Sullivan. Sound design by David Thomas. Starring Sarah Kestelman and Martina Laird with Kate Aspinall, Hugo Ross and Nicholas Boulton. The violin part (the voice of the mandrake) was devised and performed by Sarah Harrison of Mazaika.

A big thank you to Stanley Lipman for help with Yiddish translation and pronounciation.

Duration: 44 minutes.


[Ruth is sitting at Irene's kitchen table, taking notes on her life history.]

RUTH -So… in England… Did you miss life on the road?

IRENE -I had already lived a lifetime. I was happy to make roots. To love and be loved.

RUTH -Did you have children?


RUTH -[Narrated]. I see the shadow of time cross her face. The house stretches and sighs.


RUTH -What happened to Paul?

IRENE -The war.

RUTH -I’m sorry.

IRENE -We had been through Ypres on our travels. There were poppies in the cornfields. He painted them. Vey is mir! [Yiddish: My life is pain.]

[The violin voice creates the house groaning and this becomes a melody.]

IRENE -They sent him home. Dark eyes and a skull of yellow shadows. Mulo, golem. Undead. He did not want to live. I helped him.

RUTH -What do you mean, you helped him?

[Pause. Rain. The violin melody returns and intensifies through the speech.]

IRENE -I put a Yew stave through his heart so he could not rise again. It grew. It should not have done, but it did. A shtuken nisht in hartz. [Yiddish: ‘a stab in the heart’.] It fixed us both to this earth. Here. This earth. And now they want to cut it down: as if such things can be cut away, laid, forgotten, as if pain were not a stone and love not laid in unbreakable rings year on year, as strong and hard as iron-wood.

[The violin drops back to rain]

RUTH -I can be here when they cut down the tree. If you like. I can ask Mr Hall.

IRENE -Nayis-tuke. [Romanes: ‘Thank you.’]


Mandrake was well received by the press::

  • Pick of the Day The Radio Times
  • Pick of the Day The Times
  • Pick of the Day The Guardian

"Playwright Anita Sullivan does not shy away from tough subjects: her most recent contribution to the airways was the harrowing dramatisation of Lionel Shriver's novel about an American high-school shooting 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. But she's also proved her fondness for the supernatural in her adaptation of Alan Garner's children's story 'The Owl Service' for Radio 4 in 2004 *. This new play combines a little of the tough realism with a lot of the magical mind-altering stuff. Ruth Wilcox (played by Martina Laird) is a social worker who's carring as much emotional baggage as most of her clients when she's assigned to assess the mental health of an old lady called Irene (plaeyd by Sara Kestleman). Irene is not a typical geriatric: she claims to be 130 years old and is protecting a yew tree because it's all that's left of her husband. This is the supernatural with a sylvan twist." The Radio Times

(*Note: 'The Owl Service' was actually a play for the Theatre Royal Plymouth, not a radio production. AS)

"Do you want to know how good Anita Sullivan's play Mandrake is? I'll tell you: my 13-year-old, who heard the first 25 minutes in the car on our way to the schoolbus stop, insisted I stopped it when she got out, so she could hear the last 20 minutes on the way home - a first for the generally radiophobic Grace. And she's right: this is a magical, mysterious, atmospheric and even genuinely frightening work. It's about a woman who professes to be 120-something and her fascinating life - with more than its fair share of murders, by her account. There is also a woman whose life she changes in a purgative but ultimately beneficial way, and a child keen to know who her father was. Sara Kestelman and Martina Laird star, while the violin playing that adds so much to the atmosphere is that of Sarah Harrison of the folk duo Mazaika." Chris Campling, The Times Online,

"Its ingredients of witchcraft, corpses turning into trees, and pickled human foetuses suggested yesterday's Afternoon Play: Mandrake (Radio 4) would be an interesting listen, but most likely not in a good way. In the event, however, it was a delicious musing upon those fuzzy areas where rationalism can't quite supply all the answers. Playwright Anita Sullivan blended a supernatural tale told by a woman, Irene, who claimed to be 127 years old, with the story of Ruth, a social worker sent to assess Irene. Ruth's 10-year-old daughter, Poppy, owed her existence to her mother's dealings with Irene, but this only became clear as the past-and-present narrative, told by Ruth, went on. Martina Laird, as Ruth, was captivating, her lovely, rich voice conveying an appealing mixture of scepticism and empathy. Poppy kept trying to guess what happened next, but was told firmly, "Patience! If Irene taught me one thing, it was how to tell a story," and this was certainly a story well told. There was a happy ending of sorts - Poppy accepted that her father was not willing to be part of her life, Irene's friend Reg was restored to health, and the token baddie got his come-uppance. And Irene turned into a tree." Camilla Redmond, The Guardian, October 23rd 2008)

There was also a very warm response to the play on the BBC Radio 4 'Drama and Readings' messageboard:

"Anyone else hear yesterday's afternoon play? I thought it was brilliant - kept me listening and guessing all the way through". halfwaylady (U11434468)

"I have just joined Message Boards for the first time specifically to say how much I enjoyed Wednesday's Afternoon Play "Mandrake". For me it was quite brilliant and I was late for an appointment sitting in my car listening to the end ...! Well done Beeb!" Bannum (U13648813)

"I loved the play" Namaste (U10761747)

"I loved this play also" Ross_1170 (U2320187)

"I enjoyed it too" Scheherezade (U2212013)



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