Who is best living English playwright? I am never particularly taken with questions and comparisons of this type, and I am certainly not going to attempt to answer the question. I can say, though, that some of the most memorable new plays that I have seen are by Alan Bennett. ‘The Lady in the Van’, ‘The History Boys’ and ‘The Habit of Art’ all spring to mind. There is something about the way in which Bennett is able to blend the mundane and the extraordinary, the comic with the poignant, that makes for compelling drama on stage and screen. And Bennett’s reputation means that his plays attract some of the finest actors, which itself adds to the quality.
As a result I had high expectations when I went to see Bennett’s latest, ‘People’ at the National Theatre last weekend. This play is enjoyable and thought-provoking, if not quite up to the standards of some of his other recent plays. It tells the story of Dorothy Stacpoole, an ageing aristocrat, former model and owner of a stately home that is crumbling around her for lack of investment. Should she sell the house or its contents privately or give it to the National Trust? Or is there another option?
‘People’ has the characteristic Bennett humour and pathos. The play deals with some of the themes that have featured in his other works, especially the challenges of old age: a sense of being abandoned by society and regret of past choices. There is also a strong sense of challenge to ‘the establishment’, or at least a questioning of whose establishment it actually is. And, as usual, there is an acute narrative of class. For Bennett institutions like the National Trust and the Church of England are complicit in maintaining a class structure that serves no-one, not even the groups of people who apparently benefit.
The central idea of the play is the notion of making people (hence the title) into objects. Bennett sees the National Trust approach to history as guilty of this, but is also self-reflective in the sense the theatre itself can be seen as making people into objects. “I am not a metaphor”, declares Dorothy Stacpoole, staring directly out at the audience, then a few lines later agrees that the house can be a venue for the filming of pornography, itself a not especially subtle metaphor for Bennett’s view of the version of heritage served up by the National Trust.
As usual the production at the National Theatre is excellent, and the performances are all of a high standard. Frances de la Tour‘s performance as Dorothy Stacpoole is especially notable. In terms of technical production, the set is refreshingly straightforward, but there is an impressive transition, as the dilapidated stately home is transformed into a beautified, but sanitized, version by the National Trust.
Overall, I don’t think this is the greatest of Bennett’s plays, but it is definitely worth seeing if you can.