Alan Bennett talks to Mark Fisher about his spy double-bill. Also Annie Griffin’s new production with Gloria Theatre Company, and the Scottish Student Drama Festival.
LISTINGS: THEATRE 43 CABARET 52 DANCE 53
As the Royal National Theatre brings Single Spies to Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, Mark Fisher goes colloquial with Alan Bennett.
It were a Friday. I remember because Mr Cresswell had invited us round — my Mam and me — for Eccles cakes and a cup of tea and he’d said I could borrow one of his Len Deighton paperbacks. Mam always likes an Eccles cake, though they’re a little sticky for my taste. I said that to her in fact, but she knows how I get on with Mr Cresswell and I’m not one to argue. And we’d promised him we’d go.
Anyway, I was just looking for my overcoat when the phone rang. Mam was closest, so she got to it first despite the trouble she’s been having with her hip. ‘lt’s a Mr Bennett,‘ she says, ‘for you.’
Well, I’m not used to callers, especially on a weekday, so it came as quite a surprise. I called down to see if she knew what it was concerning, but she was already busying herself in her room. I didn’t know where to put myself, sol thought I’d take the bull by the horns and come straight to the point. I picked up the phone and came right out with it. ‘It’s not about the Poll Tax is it?’ I says to him.
‘Oh no,’ says this Mr Bennett, ‘1 don’t get steamed up about many things, but the Poll Tax gets me very hot under the collar. That and the
recent Secrets Act. I think it’s awful that it’s come
in under Douglas Hurd who’s supposed to be quite liberal. It does get me grinding my teeth, so I try not to think about it.’
‘I know, Mr Bennett, 1 get the same myself sometimes,’ I says, realising he wasn’t phoning from the corporation. That was a relief in itself. Turns out, he’s something ofa writer in his spare time, this Mr Bennett, and we got on to talking about these two plays he’d written for the National Theatre. There’s one of them all about Guy Burgess which he calls An Englishman Abroad , and then he’s got this other play about Anthony Blunt called A Question of Attribution. ‘So you’re interested in spies are you Mr Bennett?’ I says to him.
‘l’m not fascinated in espionage in the Le Carré sense,’ he says, ‘l’m not bothered about all that. I think it‘s a bit childish really; giving each other names and a private language and all that.’ I knew what he was getting at, though I dare say Mr Cresswell would have a word or two to say about it. But I didn’t interrupt. ‘The Burgess one
is just a way of looking at England from a distance. The spy thing is a way into it. When people say I’m drawn to it, they think it’s cloak and dagger and all that, but it’s nothing to do with that really. It’s also to do with having it both ways. Burgess and Blunt are both examples of English hypocrisy.’
Course by this time my Mam was there with her handbag and a parcel of fruit for Mr Cresswell, tapping her feet like there was no tomorrow. ‘l’m talking to Mr Bennett,’ I hissed, but she wouldn’t be ushered away. ‘Please Mam,‘ I tried again, ‘he’s talking about the Queen’. I knew that’d get her and I allowed myself a little smirk. She was back in the front room in no time.
‘When Blunt was exposed,’ Mr Bennett was saying, ‘I made some notes that a conversation between him and the Queen would be quite interesting. Two or three years ago, I was turning over my papers and I came across these notes and thought some of it looked quite promising. I thought, well, I’ll go and look at the catalogue of Royal Pictures to see if I can find a picture they can be talking about. I found a reference in an article about a picture which was originally supposed to be by Titian and there were two figures in it. Blunt, when he was Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, had it cleaned and a third man was revealed. Then he had it X-rayed and a fourth man was revealed. Then he turned the picture the other way around and behind them all was a fifth man. It just seemed so obviously a metaphor for all the spy business I thought if anybody else comes across this article, they’ll write it, so I better pull my finger out and write it myself.’
We never did get round to Mr Cresswell’s, me Mam and me.
Single Spies is at Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 2—7 April.
‘i was talking to lan Wooldridge the other day,’ says actor Nicholas Jeune, ‘and he said, what we give you here are Rolls Royces. The Duchess of Malll is a Rolls Royce of a play. Staggeringly good!
Jeune has recently linished a long tour at Frieda and Diego, Red Shilt’s Fringe First-winning South American drama which went on to break box olllce records up and down the country. Alter six months oi that, it’s an invigorating challenge lor him to return to the classical repertoire and the part
oi Antonio in John Webster’s rich revenge tragedy. Directed by Hugh Hodgart in period style, it is a Royal Lyceum production that starts oil at Glasgow's Theatre Royal.
‘This play should be a great night out,’ Jeune enthuses, ‘it's like a Hollywood-style hit. it has love interest, violence, greed for power, gore, thriller aspects- it’s a blockbuster. There’s so much you can play with the audience. This play was lirst pertormed in 1613. All oi Shakespeare’s plays were around that time. Hamlet was performed in 1601. The Changeling was about nine years alter this one. Ben Jonson’s Volpone was about eight years before. It’s like a lantastlc collection at West End hits all on at the same time. It must have been
an extraordinary time to be around.’
A champion oi the classical canon, Jeune jumped at the chance both to periorrn in The Duchess oi Malli lor the first time and to return to Edinburgh outside the Festival. lie is critical of our narrow-minded attitude about what constitutes classical drama, arguing that people's enthusiasm ior Shakespeare often leads them to neglect other major works. ‘l don't think there’s anything mysterious about classical work,’ he says. ‘ll a play is good, you don’t need to reinvent it. Too often people take a quality ol a play and drive it as an image through the whole play. But they have so many iacets, so many qualities, that you don’t need to do that. Verse lsn’t difficult as long as you operate by the
rules. When the audience really gets
excited is when you give a live-line meaning to a live-line sentence.’ (Mark Fisher)
The Duchess oi Malll is at Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 28—31 March, and the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 6—28 April.
The List 23 March — 5 April 1990 41