I’ve been an Alan Bennett fan for many years, and I particularly like his prose style. His monologues give us the best of both worlds: written narrative brought to life. The only other Bennett play I have directed was Habeas Corpus, for the Finn-Brit Players in 1983. Glyn Banks was in the leading role, and Mark Shackleton put in a sterling performance as Canon Throbbing: need I say more?
For me as a director, a good dramatic text is one that doesn’t lose its fascination no matter how often you read, rehearse, hear or perform it. Some of Shakespeare’s plays, much of Pinter’s writing, Bennett and Mamet immediately come to mind, but there are many more. The writing is right, and is seldom improved by actors’ lapses or directors’ alternatives. It’s the story, the rhythm, the characterisation, the wording, the pausing, the idiosyncrasy.
For the actor this loyalty to the text is not just a matter of principle, it is also a practical necessity when other people (fellow actors, sound and lighting operators) are involved. Where does this leave the performer of a monologue? Stranded, some might say! Apart from the odd sound effect you are on your own. There are no fellow actors to pick up forgotten cues or give you surreptitious prompts. You have to know exactly where you are going. You need a good script and to be able to hold the attention of the audience, alone.
Maggie Smith played Susan in the original BBC TV production of Bed Among the Lentils. The director was Alan Bennett. Undeterred, Anna Rawlings and I are building our own interpretation, influenced somewhat by the Puoli-Q setting and the fact that it is a ‘live’ performance. The play hasn’t lost its fascination. It is a good text!