Getting to grips with the complexities of a genius
- Credit: Archant
This year has been all about celebrating the life and music of Suffolk composer Benjamin Britten. Born in Lowestoft, he spent the majority of his working life living in Aldeburgh or Snape and, although he was an international figure, his roots remained firmly embedded in the coastal landscape.
His music, including the operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Albert Herring, took their inspiration from the world in which he lived.
This year’s Aldeburgh Festival marked the anniversary by returning Britten’s music to the county’s churches and staged a landmark production of Peter Grimes on the very beach that inspired the opera and George Crabbe’s original poem.
Understandably, the majority of the events have been celebratory and have focused on the music. But north Suffolk-based team writer Robin Brooks and producer-director Fiona McAlpine are next week staging a new play at the New Wolsey Studio called Britten’s Got Talent which looks at the complexities and contradictions contained within Britten’s personality.
Fiona said that the play didn’t set out to demonise Suffolk’s famous son but it was satirical. “The play had its origins two years ago and it’s been steadily since then. We had a reading in Halesworth with Julian Harries and Simon Butteress and people, who knew and loved Britten’s work, enjoyed the play.
“In fact Simon was the inspiration behind the play. He is a real Britten aficionado. He’s adapted Let Make An Opera in the past, and it struck me about two summers ago he really looks like Britten.
“We talked about doing something together and he was encouraging Robin to write something. Originally it was going to be a radio play and something very different called Friends of Ben. Then we pitched the idea to Pete (Rowe) and Sarah (Holmes) at the New Wolsey and it changed again.
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“It’s a play with songs and the songs are rather like the songs in Cabaret, particularly the songs sung by Joel Grey as the MC, because they comment on the action. So they are songs delivered by a character who is part of the action but which comment on the story with external eyes.
“It’s not just about Britten living in Aldeburgh in the 1960s. It’s much more satirical and draws comparisons with present day Britain and the way that Britten is viewed in Britain – and in Aldeburgh come to that.”
Fiona said that after Britten’s Got Talent has had its world premiere at the New Wolsey Studio during Britten’s birthday week that they are hopeful that it will have another life elsewhere. She’s also hopeful that Simon Butteress will be available to take part in another production.
“The sad thing is that Simon is not available to take part in this premiere production because he’s in Paris performing in My Fair Lady. Keith Hill is playing Britten in this production and he is so right for the part. He is part of a cast of five.”
She said that the songs reflect the times and comment on the action without being pastiche Britten. “The songs are original and are very right for the production. They are not trying to be Britten and they have been written by a composer Damian Evans, who did a lot of telly work, and has now settled in Framlingham and we have music from Matt Sheeran who is Ed Sheeran’s brother.
“The connections on this play are very unusual. Matt’s grandmother Shirley Lock sang for Britten and Imogen Holst and Ed and Matt’s mum Imogen was named after Imogen Holst. We also have Britten’s driver and secretary, Jeremy Cullum’s grand-daughter, Vicky Cullum working on the project and her brother, Harry who has designed the poster.
“There is still an incredible network of people whose lives were touched by Britten still living and working in Suffolk. Britten-Pears archive loaned us some research material and we got some money from the Arts Council. But people are nervous about it following Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art which I found quite soulless. We don’t point the finger, it’s not a hatchet job, it doesn’t say he was a paedophile or anything like that. It brings it up and then there is some kind of redemption and you end up wanting to know more about Britten.”
She said that they also treat the allegations contained in Paul Kildea’s latest biography that Britten was suffering from syphilis with great caution. “The fact that the finger was pointed at Peter Pears I think was unnecessary because he didn’t know. He didn’t display any symptoms, he wasn’t ill. He died at the age of 86 ten years later. So I think to say that he was one of those people that didn’t show it, that he was a carrier, was not relevant or necessary.
“I think what they wanted to say was that, if they had discovered the syphilis earlier, they could have treated it, he would have lived longer and he would have written more music. But, I don’t think that it came over very clearly in the book. But, we are treating Britten’s world as a satire with a light touch. It’s a comedy with cabaret-style songs.”
She said that the play has evolved over time but the original idea focussed on the corpses Britten discarded in his musical quest. “The original idea centred on the friends who populated Ben and Peter’s court. They were frequently referred to as The Corpses. People that worked with Britten that were later just cast aside. He had librettists that were just discarded who thought for a while that they were an integral part of Britten’s work.
“I went to The Red House (Britten’s home and archive) and read Eric Crozier’s hand-written notes and it was so pitiful. At one time Crozier was Britten’s best friend. He was his best friend for five years in the late 1940s and then suddenly he was out.
“There are stories that the atmosphere in their circle was toxic. If you left the room suddenly the knives were out but I don’t think they could have been that nasty all the time because people did work for them for years.
“I think it was a different world and people said that if you were invited to lunch then that was great – you had made it.
“I think that Britten was very focussed on his work but there was another element. If anyone didn’t like Peter or his singing then they were out. I think he had to have been blinded a little bit by the fact that Peter had to sing everything. That is touched on but that is no longer the main thrust of the play.
“What we have come up with is an alternative view of Britten and his life. As I said it’s a comedy, it has cabaret-style songs and it is satirical. We are another view. It’s a little bit cheeky. Our slogan is: “In Aldeburgh no one can hear you scream.” It’s playing with the notion that perhaps we have become a little too reverential.
“At the time people laughed at him because he had to have a boy in his life. He didn’t necessarily do anything with them, we’re not suggesting for a moment that he did, but why did he always need a boy to love?
“I think it is significant that in this Jimmy Saville era that no-one has come forward with accusations. You would have thought that if anything untoward had gone on then someone would have tried to get money out of him. But, as we say, no-one has.”
But the other area the play tackles is Britten’s genius and his driven nature. “He had to work. He always had to work and it made him ill. It didn’t help that everyone helped make him a god.
“His other problem was his sexuality. He had Peter to help him with that but he was frequently away. In order to work he needed a muse. I think it is significant that it was while he was at Greshams as a 13-year-old schoolboy that he felt most at home. I want more of that in our play. Even in his 40s he had these little pocket book diaries that he first used when he was 13.”
Having been round The Red House I have seen their bedrooms and seen Peter’s dress suit laid out and his suitcases standing ready to go on tour.
“For me seeing the breakfast room, the dining room and the lounge was great because it gave me an insight into how they lived – what sort of world they inhabited. For the play we can’t make it real but we can capture the atmosphere.”
She said that although homosexuality was illegal for much of his life, he was clearly openly living with Peter Pears and carried on getting approval from the very highest quarters of British society.
“There was no official censure or disapproval at all. The Queen approved of him. She came twice to open the Snape Maltings Concert Hall. It was incredible because at the time homosexuality was definitely illegal and people were being cautioned or even arrested.
“We do touch on this in the play because it’s odd. They were obviously gay but because they were establishment, because no-one talked about it, it was obviously OK.”
Britten’s Got Talent by Robin Brooks and directed by Fiona McAlpine receives its world premiere at The New Wolsey Studio on Wednesday November 20 and runs until Saturday November 23.