Theatre, as a platform, had to be completely reimagined in the age of COVID-19. With the arts and entertainment sectors taking a hit of a quarter of a year without investment, there is threat that up to 70% of theatres across the UK could be permanently shut down due to lack of funds. 50% of such venues are charities or trusts in need of constant investment to stay afloat financially.
Despite such sobering statistics, there has remained some spark in the theatrical world across various streaming platforms. Early in lockdown, Mubi paired with the National Theatre and hosted a recording of Jane Eyre, and Broadway’s Hamilton is now on Disney+. The latest BBC effort was in releasing a collection of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads on iPlayer at the end of June.
Bennett’s Talking Heads remain to this day amongst his most famous screen work, as both a writer and actor. The series of dramatic monologues were originally written for television in the mid-1980s, with two series airing in 1988 and 1998 on BBC One and BBC Two respectively. Each contained six monologues of 25-40 minutes in length, existing implicitly within the same canon- despite characters remaining alone throughout their time on-screen.
The original cast was made up of British theatrical royalty, including Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, and Patricia Roulege (who went on to star in the 1992 radio adaptation). The 2020 revival, directed by renowned theatre director Nicholas Hytner, revisits ten of the original monologues, and introduces two newcomers which Bennett wrote last year.
Readaption in theatre is not quite as terminal as it is in television. New visions of old familiars are a big part of the brilliance of this medium of storytelling. In lockdown, these reimaginings met new obstacles. With no more than three people allowed on set at any given time, Hytner used fixed cameras which actors chat to and move around, creating an illusion of the audience being a guest in a rather chatty host’s living room.
Using the on-hiatus Eastenders sets at Elstree Studios, the only time this new cast appeared on set was during filming, with rehearsals taking place over Zoom and FaceTime, with Jonathon Kent directing. If the original screenings starred big names of the day, this new adaptation updates to reveal a cast of theatre legends (Kristin Scott Thomas and Imelda Staunton), television veterans (Sarah Lancashire, Martin Freeman and Lucian Msamati) and those on the up and up (Jodie Comer and Rochenda Sandall).
Josie Rourke was delegated to direct Jodie Comer’s monologue ‘Her Big Chance’, which is about a young actress who deems herself very much a hard-working professional, but struggles to be taken seriously in the sleazy television industry of the 1980s. In true Alan Bennett style, the bubbly, conversational tone of the monologue wraps itself around a subtext that the audience must interpret themselves. Rehearsal with Comer took place predominantly over video chat, and Rourke notes the philosophical fact that when it comes to this set-up, to look in the eyes of the person who you are talking to, you must look directly into the camera and away from the face on-screen. When it came to the day of filming, Rourke was convinced of Comer’s acting infallibility.
“It takes a very great actor to look into the camera’s unblinking eye and see you [the audience] there. It’s not the same thing as being together in the theatre, but it’s probably the closest you will get right now to a breathing connection with live performance.”
Bennett’s Talking Heads, like the band of the same name, have received the criticism of being ‘too of their time’ for modern audiences; a phrase that usually translates to a script being politically incorrect. Comer’s Lesley, who struggles with the perceived overlap of the jobs of ‘actress’ and ‘prostitute’, lives in a pre-#MeToo reality, and Imelda Staunton’s crime of excessive letter-writing is a period piece in the age of online scams. There are phrasings which are a little insensitive, and the historical context is more obvious at times than others.
Due to Coronavirus’ meddling hands, the late, great Thora Hind’s original monologues could not be used, as her character is in her 70s. However, with this hindrance came opportunity, and Bennett was able to release two new monologues written within the past year: ‘An Ordinary Woman’ (Sarah Lancashire), which is about a woman who falls in love with her son, and ‘The Shrine’ (Monica Dolan), which is about a grieving widow. These new stories, jarring as they are, are not out of place in Bennett’s world order. Bennett’s characters divulge to their audience in hushed tones. Not always truthful, sometimes omitting the most important details, the one-sided conversations are like the ones we have with ourselves. Each character makes excuses, tries to keep up appearances and talks around everyday activities; Sarah Lancashire’s character admits attraction to her teenage son whilst folding laundry. The characters tell their own stories and deal with their own guilt, shame, disgust and embarrassment intimately, in full view of their audience.
Not all Bennett’s characters are hoarding great secrets; Kristin Scott Thomas plays a prideful antique shop owner who mistakes a sketch by Michelangelo as junk. These monologues each revealing oddballs and busybodies, gossipers and grievers, present their speakers as neither fully good nor bad, and none easy to pin down. Bennett picks at society’s taboos and gives them heartfelt explanation with their shame. As the man who allowed his History Boys to argue in favour of Hitler, but then revealed how these logical explanations could lead to justification of every atrocity, Bennett does not do what his audience expects. As an audience member, it is at times shocking to find one’s sympathy misplaced when the crux of the story builds and a disturbing confessional comes to light. Likewise, the first hand delivery of simple universal truth can knock the breath out of you over a kitchen table.
Despite being 30 years down the line, Bennett’s writing does not lose its effect. If human stories of isolation, confusion and love, whatever its form remain relevant on-screen or on-stage during the days of lockdown and beyond, the need for theatre does too.
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Words by Hannah Gibson.