Arts: Alan Bennett: `He makes it easy for you'

Actors and directors on the playwright's qualities as his stage version of `The Lady in the Van' opens in London
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Directed `Forty Years On', Apollo Theatre, 1968

THE PLAY was the introduction of a new and original voice. It's where Bennett changed from being a sketch writer and a revue performer of great brilliance and turned into a very real playwright. It's set in a prep school on the South Downs, and it captured and crystallised a certain society at that time - it was a metaphor for English life. There's a wonderful valedictory speech which the headmaster makes - and it was beautiful in the voice of John Gielgud - and it's a most perceptive analysis of the fading of England, and its increasing suburbanisation. And you can see that now even more. It's very similar to Philip Larkin's poem Going Going - a lament for the collapse of traditional England, and there's not much you can do about it.

It's interesting to see how many people's careers were launched with that production. Anthony Andrews was one of the schoolboys, and George Fenton played the head boy - now he's an Oscar-winning composer. I remember that pre-West End we went through a difficult patch in Manchester, but when we came to Brighton, the play improved rapidly. Gielgud got a two- minute round of applause on his entrance, and when he started speaking he really took the play by the throat. We went to the Apollo theatre in London and, after the first night, it's fair to say that Alan woke up and found himself famous: it was one of those great successes that when you're young you take for granted, but when you're middle-aged you realise just how remarkable it was. As a first play it was like Look Back in Anger was to John Osborne - not necessarily his best play but the most crucial.


Directed `Kafka's Dick', Royal Court, 1986; artistic director at the National Theatre for `Single Spies', 1988, and `The Madness of George III', 1991

ALAN'S FASCINATED by the idea of spying: the idea of being outside a society and at the same time within it. There's a sense that as a writer he's a spy on his own world: it's certainly one of the characteristics throughout his work. But I was surprised with the subject matter of The Madness of George III. It's probably the least Bennettian of all his plays. I first read it when he'd just completed it, and it was a huge, unwieldy work. He and the director Nicholas Hytner worked on modifying it together. But it was always apparent that George III would be a terrific production. The play was on at the National for over two years: we revived it and it went on a tour, and then on an American tour. Then there was the film. I'm not surprised at all that it was a popular success. Bennett is an incredibly accessible playwright, but he doesn't dumb down to be popular. He writes in a way that is extraordinarily accessible, but he treats his audience with respect. He's been a successful playwright for 35 years, and a successful performer for longer, since Beyond the Fringe: he's about the most venerated playwright there is. I would love to work with him again.


Directed `Habeas Corpus', Donmar Warehouse, 1996

THERE aren't many funnier plays in the English language. It's a kind of microcosm of much of Alan's work, in that that it combines two sensibilities: there's the satire of Beyond the Fringe, and at the same time a sense of mortality that's in a direct line of descent from Larkin and Betjeman. You had pure farce on a daringly empty stage, and on the other hand, incredible flights of poetic fancy. The play explored both propriety and randiness - two warring forces, and that's where the comedy comes from.


Designer, `The Old Country', Queen's Theatre, 1977

WE OPENED in Oxford, where Sir Alec Guinness kept on going out and buying first editions of books - I'm sure they're worth a lot of money now. One of the best memories I have is watching Alan and Alec and Clifford Williams, the director, using these while they were dressing the set. And there was me directing them from the stalls, or more probably doing nothing. It was a wonderful experience - watching a knight, a leading director and a leading writer dress the set I'd designed while I watched. Then they had to go round and collect up all the valuable books and lock them all away.

I knew that what we had to do with the set for the play was to make it a little ambiguous. The audience is not supposed to be aware at first of where it was. But it was fairly straight-forward: you could make a rundown English summer cottage as much as a dacha in the forest miles from Moscow. I just used a lot of real trees. It was the cheapest way to do it.

The Old Country was a very interesting play - Alan is very interested in the idea of betrayal, and it's happened that he's written about it since. It's a fascinating subject, even for a designer. Everything's there for you to work with, it's all in the the way it was written. I was quite a young designer then, but I had a freeish reign, even though it was pretty clear what Alan intended. He didn't participate much. I worked on the Peter Hall production of Kafka's Dick a few years ago, and Alan just said "Get on with it": I think he was aware that he shouldn't meddle. But that's the sign of a writer who's generous and not arrogant: it's a collaborative effort.


Directed `Kafka's Dick', Picca-dilly Theatre, 1998

ALAN IS, as we know, a wonderful actor and comedian and he understands how comedy works. So the timing in his writing is superb. You can immediately see the rhythm he intends from the words on the page. It's very speakable and actors love that. They'll treat bad writing with no respect at all. But with Alan's you don't want to change a word.

I've known him for a long time - since before Beyond the Fringe - yet Kafka's Dick is the only play I've done of his. When I phoned him to ask if I could do it, I said did he want to come to rehearsals and he said no. He'd done it long ago and now had other things in his head. He'd rather leave me to it, he said. A model author!

He doesn't write things that are too long, as most authors do. But the wit is the most remarkable feature. It puts him in the Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Harold Pinter league. He's humane, yet sceptical, an unusual combination. And he's got a keen eye for nonsense and pretension. He could be this big arty fellow from the north, but he's not, of course. In fact as a person he passes my acid test. If I were marooned at sea I'd want him on board. He'd stop us being maudlin or self-pitying.


Played Mr Shanks in `Habeas Corpus', Lyric Theatre, 1973

FOR SOME reason, when I got the script of Habeas Corpus it was devoid of stage directions and I didn't know what it was about. I didn't under- stand it. My wife read it and thought it was great. She said: `Michael Codron's producing it, Alec Guinness is starring in it, and Alan Bennett has written it. Do you think they're all wrong and you're right?'

Alan used to come into rehearsals and he'd bring in what he called "the buns". He'd be laden with cakes for the cast. It was a bit of a ceremony. I remember him sitting in the stalls, clutching his knees, and the cast were arguing about some moment in a very serious way and he was shaking his head, saying: "Oh, me jokes! What are they doing to me jokes?" In the second cast Alan took over the char-lady part from Patricia Hayes. He had a scarf on and a skirt, and had a vacuum cleaner. He was the master of ceremonies. It was wonderful to have him out there.


Played Kafka in `Kafka's Dick', Royal Court, 1986

ALAN WASN'T around much in the early stages. I remember him as a lurking presence in the stalls later on. If I did have questions, he would deflect them. He didn't want to impose his own view on it. Compared to Pinter, say, who's a very forceful presence in the rehearsals, he was more prepared to let us get on with it. Usually when a writer's around he's a very good model for the part. In this case I didn't use him. Kafka's a very different physical shape. He's angular. I played him as very shrinking. He was trying to shrink from his own presence. Alan's softer, and more upright. I don't imagine him having sharp edges, though he's sharp enough. I didn't use his voice either. Alan's got this northern thing and I was doing an Eastern European Jew. It did occur to me that he would be rather brilliant in the part himself. He doesn't look as Jewish as I do but that's not essential. He would have been able to embody that mixture of innocence and perplexity at the ways of the world. He's a fantastic observer. He shuns crowded rooms and flees from crowds. I think he shares an awful lot of Kafka's anxieties: those paradoxical feelings about fame and success and loathing it all.



Played Geoff Price in `Getting On', Queen's Theatre, 1971

IT WAS Alan's first serious play and Kenneth More played a Labour MP who was paired in the House of Commons with a Conservative MP, played by Brian Cox, who was a concealed gay. I played Geoff, a young hippy, who had affairs with Kenneth's wife, played by Gemma Jones, and with Brian. Kenneth More was a huge star. But he was an extraordinarily difficult customer because he was very very certain of who his audience was. The play had a deliciously autumnal feel to it, without any sentimentality, and it touched raw nerves. There were swear words in it. But Kenneth was certain he couldn't be seen to be saying them, and he gave his performance a sentimental colouring. He didn't feel that the harshness of his character was something his audience would accept. He refused to allow those elements to come through, which made Alan sad.


Played Phillips in `A Question of Attribution', National Theatre, 1988

I WAS straight out of rep. But Simon Callow asked me to be in the play, and you don't give a second thought to acting with Alan Bennett, who played Anthony Blunt, and with Prunella Scales, who played the Queen, with Simon Callow directing. The play was just so funny. He knows how to make the funny moments work. He knows his stagecraft, and he makes it very easy for an actor. In my experience, good writers have very clear ideas, but they don't interrupt or interfere with the staging their play. A director can bring new interpretations, and with just one line an actor can bring a reading the writer hadn't seen. But more often than not the writer is thrilled, and Bennett was not at all precious, nor dogmatic. He's a charming man.

Interviews by Robert Butler, Maeve Walsh, Jenny Gilbert and Simon O'Hagan

`The Lady in the Van': previews from Friday, opens 7 December, Queen's Theatre, W1 (0171 494 5040)