Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon ****

Mark Ravenhill’s tight two-hander tells of the tempestuous relationship between Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, daughter of the late Gustav, who has arrived in Aldeburgh to assist Britten in the composition of his commissioned ceremonial opera “Gloriana”, based on the glorious reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The composer has only nine months before it is to be premiered at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The atmosphere is fraught and pressurised.

Originating as a radio-play broadcast in 2013 as part of the Britten centenary celebrations, the play is certainly wordy, and certainly every word is not intelligible, however brilliant the delivery of the actors Samuel Barnett as Britten and Victoria Yeates as Imogen. But their body-language and intensity of their engagement communicates everything.

Already a tormented, complex human being, Britten spends all his time agonising over the artistic politics of the enterprise, whom to call on, whom not to offend (including his partner Peter Pears). Imogen is down-to earth, practical, anxious to get on with things – and finding herself falling in love with this homosexual.

Under Erica Whyman’s economic, effective direction they occasionally fall into each other’s arms, clinching for an embarrassing eternity. Dramatic licence, I would suggest. At other times Barnett’s assumption of Britten’s nervous tics, right fingers twitching uncontrollably, convey so much of what really informs his personality – as does his perking-up whenever young boys are mentioned, not least the prospect of adopting (read John Bridcut’s “Britten’s Children”, in which a particular German teenager, son of an eminent conductor, is specially mentioned).

Imogen puts everything into trying to assist the composer, even demonstrating Elizabethan dances (Yeates remarkably athletic, poised and graceful). He rewards her by subjecting her to his legendary cruelty, describing her father as a one-hit wonder (I doubt none of Britten’s output will ever achieve the universal popularity of The Planets).

And so it goes on, Britten prophesying that the festive pageantry everyone was expecting will fall flat in his unflattering depiction of the great Tudor Queen (might his dark predictions really have been truly felt?).

Visually this production is a gentle delight, a revolve stage gently swirling the piano around as the actors shift the minimal scenery themselves, Conor Mitchell’s music unobtrusively delivered by offstage pianist Connor Fogel (with never a direct reference to the Gloriana score), and the actors making a subtle change of costume during the interval.

All Britten’s psychosexual hangups were prominent and obvious in this play, but more revealing was the sheer dogged, determined practicality of Imogen Holst. Today she lies meekly behind the graves of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in the graveyard at Aldeburgh Parish Church. I wonder if those two are even aware?

Christopher Morley

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