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‘Hytner has envisaged both stories with considerable care’: THE SHRINE / BED AMONG THE LENTILS – Bridge Theatre

Bridge Theatre, London – until 22 September 2020
Talking Heads is running in repertory until 31 October 2020

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues primarily written in 1988 and 1998 are the blueprint for every single-character piece that has followed and while many have emulated the form, few have bettered it. The genre is also perfect for our pandemic-affected theatre industry looking to restart performances while mindful of the safety of performers and audiences. The same thought that led to the BBC films of the series in early lockdown has now brought a selection to the Bridge Theatre stage in a collection of monologues designed to safely revive live performance.

Eight of Bennett’s plays that encompass the three different decades in which they were constructed are represented from the 12 filmed recently for television (and still available on the iPlayer), each performed by the same actor who, presumably thanks to disrupted filming and other commitments, are all free to reprise their performances live on stage. Sold in batches of two and interspersed with David Hare’s new work Beat the Devil enacted by Ralph Fiennes, and soon to be joined by Inua Ellams’ An Evening with an Immigrant and from mid-October Yolanda Mercy’s Quarter Life Crisis and Zodwa Nyoni’s Nine Lives, the Bridge Theatre has created a theatrical pick n’ mix.

But why offer shows based on a series so recently presented on television and still freely available? The monologue is a quick win for most theatres and while other venues successfully experiment with Covid bubbles (Sleepless in Seattle), live streaming new work (Three Kings) and innovative choreography to create socially distanced musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar), the enduring quality of Bennett’s writing and this collection of performers is hard to argue against. There is an added fascination in seeing director Nicholas Hytner undertake a rare stage to screen to stage translation, taking a production that was designed initially for the different kind of intimacy that television offers and finding ways to both rearrange the elements of each piece to suit the demands of a very large auditorium and the expectations of a live audience.

Where film offers shot selection, cuts and opportunities for cameras to pan, track or close-in on the nuances of an actor’s interpretation, the physical experience of live theatre is quite different and an actor must both expand and contain different aspects of their performance. Gestures and changes of pace must be big enough that the whole room can see or feel them, while the credibility of characterisation, scenario building and connection with an audience on three sides and on three levels is quite a different skill than playing to a couple of cameras that capture the barest flicker of feeling.

To that end, in what is arguably the pick of the Talking Heads pairings, the Bridge Theatre’s most savvy decision is in teaming The Shrine with Bed Among the Lentils, placing together two of our finest actors who effortless and regularly transition between stage and screen – Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville. The monologues also represent Bennett’s oldest and newest works, one first presented among the original set of 1980s stories and the other written in 2019, but they also contain thematic links looking at ideas of marital loneliness, the expectations of middle age and the effect of religious iconography and ritual in the domestic sphere.

Hytner has envisaged both stories with considerable care, gesturing to the confining worlds in which the characters spend their lives with simplified sets that hint at the understated neatness of the homely middle classes with video backdrops designed by Luke Halls to aid with the transition between places or references. Unlike their televised counterparts which made an impact in a slightly different way, the injection of physicality into these stories makes them both funnier and more tragic. Never underestimate the power of a character standing in front of you confessing the emptiness of their lives.

On screen, the strength of these two monologues came from their static nature, Lorna and Susan trapped by habit, fear and happenstance in lives that accelerate beyond their control, leaving them almost more unhappy at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. The stillness that Dolan and Manville conveyed on screen offered a sense of their characters squeezed and unwilling or unable to break free.  They go through the motions of tea rituals, flower arranging sessions and carrying on, painfully aware that while everything has changed around them, they will remain always in that room and that state of being.

As discussed in the earlier essay The Women of Talking Heads, Bennett has a particular feel for the experience of anonymity and writes especially well for those who seem to pass unnoticed through the world. Marriage is show to stifle and contain, all too rarely bringing that communion with another soul that newlyweds – in popular culture at least – seem to aspire to. What we see in the Talking Heads monologues are couples who fail to truly know or understand one another, and while these are primarily female perspectives, neither party appears guiltless, except the narrators’ position is limited by social circumstance and the label of “wife” while the husband or primary male character is daily in the world.

The Shrine

The Shrine has exactly that scenario, a grieving wife learning that her husband Clifford and the man known to his biker friends as Cliff were not quite the same person. Staged for the first time at the Bridge, Lorna is placed in a representative kitchen in which the domestic rituals – performed with a habitual precision – are the stuff of her life, even replacing a meaningful relationship with her partner long before his death. Lorna’s routines, making tea in a proper pot even though it is just her, the use of a milk jug returned promptly to the fridge lest it spoil, washing her single plate, china mug and cutlery before drying them with a pristine tea-towel, these are the rites that comprise her day.

That Bennett introduces a temporary hiatus in the period of this play does not prevent Lorna from returning to these patterns and Dolan makes this subtle aspect of her personality the anchor of her performance. The visits to and protection of the titular shrine are an extension of her pre-existing desire for order and regularity, and Dolan grounds Lorna within these boundaries, knowing exactly when to say a line or reveal a new part of the story by tying the delivery to the activity her character is then engaged in while never losing the freshness of the moment, as though we are the first people she has ever confided in. Our only complaint that the performance at under half an hour is over too soon.

The new physicality in this performance also gives Dolan the freedom to move around the stage, not excessively but enough to draw some bolder lines under the moments of discomposure, upset or stress that ensure the performance breaches the significant demands of the sizeable auditorium. It is a fine balance, one which Dolan achieves with ease as the unassuming but determined Lorna fights for the memory of her husband. That she confesses an inability to feel a wailing sorrow at his absence is belied by her obsessive attention to the crash site and this is purposefully the place that Clifford died, not the cemetery where he is buried. And Bennett it seems is commenting on the religious ritualisation of death that may not be overtly Christian but remains ensconced in the deification of the departed, Clifford assuming an almost sacrificial role in Lorna’s mourning process.

Dolan quietly earns our attention and our empathy and it is her very ordinariness that has the biggest emotional impact. This is not an event that creates a disproportionate or melodramatic response, but one that almost takes her by surprise as she learns more about her husband’s real life and her own reactions to it. There are untapped reserves of strength in Lorna that emerge carefully across the performance, a fluttery woman who becomes far surer of self, almost released by Clifford’s death without understanding that a change has occurred when she seems happy to remain the widow in the kitchen.

Bed Among the Lentils

Bed Among the Lentils in a way is almost the opposite as its character Susan seeks any kind of escape from the stultifying experience of being a vicar’s wife, whether through alcohol or an unlikely affair with a much younger shopkeeper. Instead of the everyday routines giving her comfort and stability, they erode Susan whose world-weary voice with a vicious lash is one of Bennett’s finest creations. The scenario is beautifully drawn and the gaggle of eager volunteers keen to supplant her position in the church are created with wonderful clarity, acting as a barometer for Susan’s relationship with her husband, but more importantly with herself. And while she scorns their opinion and way of living, her underlying sadness and eternal dissatisfaction with herself is buried within the humorous observation of her rivals.

In translating this monologue to the stage, Hytner makes the slightly awkward decision to have several visible stagehands move the set between chapters which rather breaks the flow, and while the original play changes location (although the recently televised adaptation did not leave the house), the Director would do better to rely entirely on Manville to transport the audience through the performance. An actor more that able to captivate an audience for 45-minutes, it is to her credit that these activities to reposition a few chairs that imply home, church and hall, barely break the spell Manville so brilliantly weaves.

Like Lorna, the addition of physical movement brings out a nervy quality in Susan that progresses the character from the powerful and defeated stillness of her screen version, to a more rounded creation whose exasperation is given a bodily expression that makes this live performance no less devastating. And while the screen Susan embraced a small physical transformation during her affair with Mr Ramesh leading to a subtle change of clothes and a carefree manner, on stage Manville expands on the idea of the affair as light in the darkness of Susan’s experience, smiling girlishless to herself at the memory of their encounters, as though taking every opportunity to mention his name to us, hardly aware of the effect he has on her countenance.

This is a masterclass in quiet tragedy from Manville who pitches Susan’s hopeless desperation quite perfectly, wringing every ounce of comedy from the silly scenarios and outcomes of her increasing alcoholism while never detracting from the endless emptiness of her experience. And Susan is not a character who is especially self-pitying or particularly seeks the audience’s approval so Manville plays her as a woman perhaps trapped, but spiritedly refusing to play the game as other demand it.

Dolan and Manville are so wonderful in these roles, using the broader canvas that theatre offers to find wider and deeper meaning in their character’s experience and to burrow deeper into various aspects of their original performances. The monologue may be a live theatre staple for a while yet and while staging the Talking Heads monologues so soon after their television airing may seem unnecessary, the chance to see two great actors delivering Bennett’s finely calibrated short plays is impossible to refuse.

Talking Heads is running in repertory at the Bridge Theatre until 31 October with The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils finishing on 22nd September. Tickets are available from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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