At what point doessomeone become a national treasure? This is the question Alan Bennett must have been asking himself when writing People, his latest play, which premiered at the National Theatre last month. Bennett, who has been working in the world of theatre for more than 50 years, is Britain’s most well known playwright, and arguably one of the best. Responsible for The History Boys and The Habit of Art, Bennett has come to represent modern British drama; People continues in this tradition, centring around the idea of national institutions, class divides, and the death of the English country house.
People’s plot centres around a large mansion, located near where Bennett grew up, in South Yorkshire. The house is unmanageable, expensive to run, and inhabited by a pair of old women, Dorothy and Iris (played by Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett respectively), who are slowly atrophying in the large drawing room. Dorothy does not want to get rid of the house, but realises that it is inevitable if she is to survive. She has a number of options; a cinema company want to use it to shoot a pornographic film, there has been interest from a group of Japanese businessmen, and others wish to turn it into a golf course, but at the centre of the struggle there are two major players. There is a group of investors, dubbed ‘The Concern’, who want to move the building to Devon, and the National Trust, who want to open it to the public. Both of these options would allow Dorothy to carry on living in the house, but she does not want the house to change. All she really wants is running water and privacy.
Frances de la Tour shines as Dorothy, portraying a woman who is trying to hold on to her dignity, but is completely powerless. Put under pressure by ‘The Concern’, ‘The Trust’, and her nagging sister, a deacon in the Church of England, Dorothy tries to hang on to her slowly crumbing house with all her might. When asked by Mr Lumsden, a representative of the Trust, whether she wants the house to progress or not, she simply replies that ‘decay is a form of progress’. Much of the play is focussed on the idea of trying to hang on to the past, warning of a near-future where the stately home has simply become a pastiche of a bygone age.
In the work, Bennett delivers an acerbic attack upon UK institutions; the Church, and the middle classes get hit pretty heavily, but it is the National Trust that received the brunt of the criticism. It is portrayed as a multi-armed monster, grabbing at any buildings which may be in the public interest, and delivering a tacky, artificial representation of history. In one memorable scene Mr Lumsden talks about how the trust is planning on acquiring the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland and recreating the ‘dirty protest’ staged by IRA prisoners during the Troubles. This treatment of the past clearly horrifies Bennett, who closes the play with the line ‘let what is gone be gone, and not fetched back’. Bennett is describing a world where ‘Britain is at a standstill’, obsessed with the past, and unable to move forward. The Trust, for Bennett at least, also represents its target market: the middle classes, who are described as ‘the shockable ones’. The idea of swathes of middle class parents wandering through the house brings misery to Dorothy.
While Bennett’s witty attacks against institutions are convincing, one must take them with a pinch of salt; after all, Bennett himself is an institutionof British theatre, and having lived in North London for the last few decades, he may have more in common with the middle class than he cares to admit. But People should not be taken too seriously; it is after all a comedy, and a damn good one too. The set and lighting are excellent, as is to be expected from the National Theatre, and Nicholas Hynter’s sublime direction helps elevate what would be a light comedy into a real work of art. While Bennett may be trying to escape becoming a national treasure, this work does not do him any favours; if anything it simply further entrenches his role as king of British theatre.