Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review: 'Britten in Brooklyn' at Wilton's Music Hall, 2nd September 2016

Conscientious objection is usually morally bulletproof when retrospectively evaluated. For example, during the Great War those who objected to participating in the conflict were shunned, vilified and often imprisoned. Ditto Vietnam, or even the second Iraq War. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the reputations of those that refused to fight are rehabilitated and their arguments vindicated.

But what happens to pacifists when a war arrives that should be fought?

It’s this thorny situation that confronts the bohemian inhabitants of 7 Middagh Street in Britten in Brooklyn. This house, dreamed up by WH Auden, was a refuge for freethinking artists, where they could realise their creative dreams free of the bondage of 1940s society. For young composer Benjamin Britten, who we meet being interrogated by a military tribunal, the building promises sanctuary from victimisation and stigma, a haven for him to regain a measure of creative freedom, not mention being open about his homosexuality.

The rest of the play chronicles events in the house, with residents WH Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers and Benjamin Britten trying to erect a bulwark against the rapidly disintegrating global political situation, campaigning to prevent the United States; involvement in the war and arguing amongst themselves whether Nazism is really the threat the press claim it is.

The prickly core of Zoe Rose’s play is that we're meeting with four hugely intelligent, incredibly talented and politically right-on individuals. This is the generation who grew up during the Great War, gazing on in horror as the greatest artistic minds of the last generation were fed into the meat-grinders of the Somme and Verdun and have taken a principled stand to not carry on a legacy of violence. They’re admirable people. They’re also completely wrong.

In 2016 the miseries of Nazi Germany, the psychopathic ambitions of Hitler and the historically unequalled horror of the extermination camps are cemented in our minds and have been analysed in microscopic detail. For us, the concept of a Nazi victory in Europe would lead to a snowball of atrocities, one thankfully now relegated to speculative fiction. Rose’s characters do not have the same advantage. For one they’re in 1940, for another they’re suspicious of a genuinely propagandist media and are grounded in a passionately held philosophy that views armed conflict as inherently immoral.

Despite that, it’s difficult not to wince when WH Auden openly says that the Nazis might not be all that bad, or when reports of increasingly poisonous antisemitism are dismissed as lies to sucker the USA into joining the war. All too soon we recognise that Auden’s haven has turned into an echo chamber, the characters using the excuse of artistic freedom to become ostriches, plunging their heads into the sand to block out the outside world. Things come to a head when a Navy sailor arrives to deliver an ominous letter to Britten. His presence pops the bubble, bringing first hand experience of bombed out London suburbs, forcing the characters to confront reality.

This philosophical and political debate kept me engaged, making me wonder how I might have behaved were I in their shoes. Unfortunately, when the action shifts gears from the political to the personal things grow less compelling.

Though these are interesting people, their intertwining relationships are sketched pretty thinly. Most of the characters are going through a rather dry creative period and are trying to get their mojo back, but their efforts to do so are thinly written and lack the ‘oomph’ of artistic breakthrough. Similarly, their relationships with each other don’t exactly fizz with passion - for example - we’re told that Carson McCullers is besotted with Gypsy Rose Lee, but we never feel it. Not helping is that both Auden and Britten are apparently besotted with men that remain offstage, leaving a bit of a hole in the emotional narrative.

This particularly hobbles Britten, who we warm to but never achieves the complexity the play targets. We periodically flash back to his mother’s sickness a couple of years previous, these overcooked quasi-dream sequences first intrigue, but soon distract. Similarly, though he makes a big deal of his sexual hangups, that we never see him come close to consummating them leaves his arc somewhat stunted.

This is echoed in performances that range in quality. Ruby Bentall and David Burnett are straightforwardly excellent. Bentall appears to channel Katherine Hepburn in her fast talking, irreverent and socially fearless writer, stomping around the stage and making 40s cross-dressing couture look stylish as hell. Burnett’s late appearance almost steals the show, taking a rather thinly sketched military archetype into a model of stillness and discipline, a humorous contrast with the louche artists he’s surrounded by.  

Sampson’s Britten is decently played, with a fine line in vulnerability and conscience, yet the play doesn’t allow him the cathartic moment he needs to feel fully rounded, leaving Sampson with a journey but no destination. John Hollingworth puts some welly into his Auden, but he feels a bit too braying public-schoolboy stereotype - mixed with a confusing twist of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. It's only Sadie Frost’s Gypsy Rose that never works: the character is an unbelievable caricature of sexuality, endlessly draping herself across the stage with a nauseating cod-sexiness, delivering lines in a breathy American accent that never convinces.

Still, the staging grants the piece considerable atmosphere. Things are given a leg up by the venue, Wilton’s Music Hall coming with its own inbuilt aura of artistic history. Also of particular note is Dom James' evocative and powerful sound design, a trembling bass boom coming to represent the wider world intruding into the artist’s happy bubble.

Britten in Brooklyn shows us a fascinating historical nexus, some of the finest artistic minds of their generation dealing with the most important events of the 20th century. From a political and philosophical perspective it’s meaty stuff. But when it comes to the personal, it stumbles.


Britten in Brooklyn is at Wilton's Music Hall until September 17th. Tickets here.

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