Alan Bennett‘s hotly-anticipated new play People, details of which were closely guarded, premiered last night (7 November 2012) in the NT Lyttelton.
It is funny, and brilliant, and a deeply felt satire on the heritage culture. Nicholas Hytner’s beautifully weighted (and superbly well
cast) production also operates as a brisk antidote to the “living history” pageants in royal palaces and the hushed-tone reverence of stately home guided tours. People combines elements of other Bennett plays, especiallyEnjoy… but it crackles with its own splendid theatrical energy, and Nicholas le Prevost as Ralph Lumsden, the National Trust man, is a riot of twisting suggestions and craven appreciation. The public does troop through, but not before the most amazing transformation in Bob Crowley’s design, conducted by a chorus of workmen, film crew and decorators. There hasn’t been a more enjoyable or richly contemporary and important new play all year.
A grand evening even if you’d never heard of the author; if you follow him, far more. It distils every ambivalent Benettian preoccupation:
authenticity, history, populism, nostalgia, camp, class, Yorkshire, Anglicanism, apologetic smut, unlived lives, batty old ladies, porn, chamberpots, the Thatcher legacy. It is wonderfully funny, too. Bennett teamed with the director Nicholas Hytner always promises a gently transgressive impishness, a sportive clash of earthy and prim, and Hytner is ever better at comic direction. A half hour of unending laughter opens the second act. But you leave it moved by understated tragedy, and braced (oh, poor National Trust) by a timely challenge to a sacred cow. And there’s even a dry, fleeting joke involving Henry VIII’s rosary. I ask no more.
Bennett… turns his attention to the heritage industry, the tasteless marketing of history, the desire to turn every form of experience into a commodity, and what he seems to regard as the modern growth in self-interest. Bennett’s writing brims with ideas – perhaps too many.
Several of the characters are underdeveloped, and I’m not absolutely convinced that he has decided what this play’s main concern is. Yet it has bite, and its quieter and more elegiac scenes feel genuinely important, a tragic vision of decay… smothered dreams and the peculiarities of the English class system. There are plenty of laughs too – some of them inspired. Theodore’s filming is the funniest sequence in Nicholas Hytner’s affectionate production. But it’s the moments of tenderness and droll social insight that show Bennett at his best.
Alan Bennett… in his mordantly funny new play… shows a South Yorkshire country house and its upper-crust owners being… turned into a part of the heritage industry. People hinges on the future of a stately pile. Bennett himself uses the house to make a series of sharp, stabbing points about our urge to commodify all human experience. All this comes across clearly in Nicholas Hytner‘s production and in Bob Crowley’s design, which shows the shabby mansion being tartily and spectacularly transformed. Frances de la Tour… blissfully inhabits the plum role of the dilapidated Dorothy, nostalgic for a world in which everything, including herself, is allowed to decay naturally. The play raises the intriguing prospect of a running war between two NTs:
the National Theatre and the National Trust. Bennett has lost none of his edge when it comes to pinning down the violation of our national life by the notion that everything is subject to the values of the market.
Bennett’s highly entertaining new play People… takes an outrageously funny and provocative swipe at the National Trust. There is spirited intellectual knockabout in the contest over values that pits our heroine against Lumsden, the National Trust man who, in Nicholas le Prevost‘s very amusing performance, is all bristling enthusiasm for a world of widened access and costumed interactivity. Bennett wickedly satirises the view that there is no building whose wonders can be allowed to speak for themselves without a dumbed-down pandering to idle, prurient curiosity for doctored anecdote. People is maybe not the most even-handed of plays but it demonstrates that, in his 78th year, Alan Bennett‘s acute wit and talent for challenging cosy English complacencies are in a very healthy state of preservation.
At 78, Alan Bennett has lost little of his mischievous wit and sense of the ridiculous. People, may not be out of the top drawer of his work, lacking the emotional depth and sly subtlety of his best writing, but it is entertaining, funny and touching. He firmly fingers the Thatcherite Eighties as the period in which Britain took a wrong turning, when “everything had a price and if it didn’t… it didn’t have a value”. Frances de La Tour, with… her gift for the deadpan put-down, is on wonderful form. She seems like Bennett’s spokeswoman, as she longs for an England when the past was merely taken for granted rather than prettified and marketed, and she achieves exactly the right mixture of wit and understated poignancy.
People represents Bennett in loopier mood than we’ve seen for a long while. This mischievous, wilfully provocative play sees Dorothy and her loyal companion Iris (the brilliant Linda Bassett) assailed by a sort of cartoonish New World Order. But it does have a simple plea at its
heart: that things and people be allowed to decay when it’s their time, not made to live on in an unnaturally perky, access all areas afterlife. Bennett lands several bodyblows on the heritage industry, and his vision of the house reborn as a Trust property is exquisitely grotesque. But People is too jolly to make you feel anything more than mildly uncomfortable. As ever with Bennett at the National, you get a deftly amusing, economical production from Nicholas Hytner, a sumptuous set (courtesy of Bob Crowley) and a cast to die for.