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Review: Ben & Imo (Swan Theatre)

Review by Raphael Kohn

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

Sometimes, I feel as if the story of the cruel genius and his doting, mistreated assistant, is a bit too well-known nowadays. It comes as a surprise, therefore, that the RSC’s latest outing in the Swan theatre, Mark Ravenhill’s Ben and Imo, has a rather original feel to it. Sure, it’s a true story, based on the real life of British composers Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst. Sure, it’s not entirely an original work either, being based off Ravenhill’s 2013 radio play, Imo and Ben. Yet, with a note-perfect cast and enough creative spark to fill an opera house, there’s something new and exciting about this latest production.

 

We start our journey with our titular characters as Britten receives a commission to produce a new opera, Gloriana, in the space of nine months for the queen’s coronation, and Holst is brought in as his ‘musical assistant’. Instantly, sparks fly, they clash and embrace within moments’ notices, with a fiery and dynamic relationship between the two. Yet, fuelling all this is a pretty awful, abusive drive from Britten, mistreating and berating Holst with seemingly very little rationale of why.

 


This question forms the bulk of the story, with the timeline of the creation backgrounded in the midst of what really becomes a character portrait of the two characters and their relationship. And it’s fascinating. There are just two performers throughout the play, focussing the attention solely onto Britten and Holst. Samuel Barnett brings out nervous excitement, rage and depression from his portrayal of Britten, his mood swinging in all directions with a popping volatility. It is rare to see such an intense performance which utilises such brilliant skill and attention to detail.

 

Meanwhile, Victoria Yeates prevents her historically-sidelined Holst from being sidelined onstage. In no way relegated to the role of the musician assistant on stage, Yeates is passionate, developing a beautiful character arc throughout the play. It’s a challenge – Ravenhill’s script mainly develops through a series of vignettes into their relationship rather than a more joined-up narrative, exploring their relationship primarily and the story mainly being a vehicle for this, but Yeates faces the task excellently.



Thankfully, the two have enough chemistry and stage presence for a theatre ten times the Swan’s size. And in such a theatre, they have little props and set to work with – set designer Soutra Gilmour sets the action in a simple living room, mainly focussed on a somewhat-underused revolving grand piano. Yet, in such simplicity there is beauty, especially given the condensed size of the stage, with the action taking place on a compressed thrust, surrounded by pebbles throughout. It’s beautifully lit too by Jackie Shemesh, whose gentle lighting gives way to some fantastic effects and tremendous use of shadow and colour to imply time of day and setting.

 

Of course, it’s no mean feat to be able to explore this in such style. Ravenhill’s script is a tricky one, trying to explore many themes and overall managing to hit most of them – but the ones it does are explored brilliantly, of power, passion and cruelty. Yet, what we miss most of all is any real victories for Holst, I suppose largely down to the historical truth of the story, but she feels at times so sidelined, so denigrated, that it just became uncomfortable to lack any sense of success for her. Likewise, the lack of exploration of his sexuality to much meaningful depth, nor any exploration of the notable allegations of inappropriate desires from Britten towards underage boys, does feel a touch disappointing, although there is only so much that can be explored in a work of this length.



But these are a small concerns. Really, the majority of what we get is rather good. Ravenhill’s script lends itself brilliantly to the ebbs and flows of the characters’ dynamic relationship, tussling away over the creation of Gloriana with fire. Director Erica Whyman largely nails this, teasing out the intricacies of their volatile connection brilliantly. For a final production of her programmed work before the new Artistic Directors of the RSC’s new season begins, this is a well-directed finale to her tenure.

 

Of course, how could a play about music possibly work without music of its own? Composer Conor Mitchell provides piano-heavy accompaniment to the play, developing from sketch-like compositions, as if Britten were in the early stages of writing his opera, to more sophisticated, yet discordant, melodies later in the narrative as the opera gets closer to completion. Surprisingly, extracts of Britten’s, and other composers’, compositions are played live on the stage by Barnett and Yeates, both of whom seemed to play the piano excellently (although, due to the revolve’s positioning of the piano at times, I couldn’t be completely sure if this was the case).

 

It may not be perfect, but Ben and Imo is a rather fascinating insight into the development process of Gloriana, brought to life gloriously by its cast. We may still not understand why Britten was so monstrous towards Holst, but this is a passionate, powerful production that fascinates, and captivates, in equal measure.

 

Ben and Imo plays at the Swan Theatre until 6th April 2024. Tickets from https://www.rsc.org.uk/ben-and-imo/.


Photos by Ellie Kurttz

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