27th February, 2016, matinee
Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, a double bill made up of the one acts An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, made an interesting footnote in the National’s history when it debuted in 1988. The second play made precedent as the first play to show the Queen (played by Prunella Scales) on stage. It also coincided with the National’s royal appellation, as championed by its chairman Max Rayne, and the theatre’s 25th anniversary. Although the appellation was generally considered unpopular with most of the National’s staff and the name ‘Royal National Theatre’ has since been dropped, there was a royal gala in which the Queen attended. The fear among some of the National’s board members, Daniel Rosenthal documents in his excellent tome The National Theatre Story, was that the Queen might disapprove of her depiction on stage. AD Richard Eyre objected and it was deemed that the play should go ahead.
With this interesting bit of performance history in mind, it seems surprising how these gentle plays could ever be thought of as controversial. Indeed, as enjoyable as this co-production by Chichester Festival and Birmingham Rep Theatres (directed by Rachel Kavanaugh) is, I couldn’t help but wonder if it has been staged to fill the theatre’s coffers. In our early twenties, it was a shame that we seemed to be some of the youngest members in the audience.
An Englishman Abroad imagines the encounter between Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Spy Ring, and actress Coral Browne. Obliged to spend the afternoon in his squalid Moscow flat, Browne, possibly out of pity, agrees to order him a new suit when back in London but insists that she, as an Australian, won’t be taken into any false demeanours. Bennett’s concept of fusing the worlds of politics and theatre is interesting, allowing him to draw comparisons between the two and to skilfully summon theatrical anecdotes and witty lines: ‘I don’t know what those three sisters saw in [Moscow]’, Browne quips. Mainly a two-hander, Belinda Lang and Nicholas Farrell nicely capture the differences between Browne and Burgess. Farrell’s Burgess is a shambles, dropping tomato pips and becoming increasingly sloshed. Lang, on the other hand, is precise in her received pronunciation and appalled at having to spend so much time in his flat. First shown as a TV play in 1983, it features a self-referential add-in about Browne speaking about someone’s reaction after the TV version’s broadcast. It would have been interesting, perhaps, if Bennett revised the text for this production too.
A Question of Attribution focuses on Anthony Blunt, a former recruiter for the KGB at Cambridge, and now Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. In a meeting with HMQ (Lang), he explains that one of her paintings contains a riddle about an unnamed third man (and more) hidden in the picture. There are many clever parallels in the play between art and Blunt’s position. David Robb nicely conveys Blunt’s slight pretentiousness, his ability to appreciate art without gushing over it, as well his torment from the authorities over his role in the spy ring.
With its references to real people, I felt that the play was perhaps more effective to the older audience members. Interestingly, it begs the question of how much longer can this play be in the canon and regularly revived without its characters seeming completely historic or alien. That’s not to say that the play’s themes are irrelevant. Indeed, Bennett’s preoccupation with Englishness that features in many of his plays is still a nagging question in much contemporary drama. In addition, the idea of exile and how Burgess could’ve been welcomed back a hero years later simply if he lived to be old enough seems relevant. Furthermore, Farrell doubling as Burgess and the MI5 officer who questions Blunt highlights the idea that Burgess’ and Blunt’s authority and privileged positions are put into question.
There are some interesting matters at play in Single Spies, played out through very strong performances from Lang, Robb and Farrell, although I feel that Kavanaugh’s production could have better brought out the contradicting ideas about nationhood and betrayal. Overall, I felt it lacked the emotional power of some of Bennett’s other plays - plays which made me enamoured with his and other playwrights’ work when becoming interested in drama in the first place.
Single Spies tours the UK until 30th April, 2016.