BEN AND IMO

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _RSC.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _6th APR.

March 1, 2024

images © Ellie Kurttz @ RSC.

The tortured creative. The long-suffering, oft-overlooked spouse/assistant. The looming spectre of a potential magnum opus (or complete Hindenburg).

At a conceptual level, there isn’t anything Earth-shatteringly new or unique to Mark Ravenhill’s Ben and Imo, now playing at the RSC‘s Swan Theatre. Set in the months leading up to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, it follows the titular partnership of celebrated composer Benjamin Britten (Samuel Barnett), and daughter of the equally esteemed Gustav Holst, Imogen (Victoria Yeates) as they come together to complete Gloriana – a new Grand opera penned by Britten especially for the occasion.

It’s a time of post-War change and possibility, as a ‘new Elizabethan’ age dawns, yet traditional sensibilities still hold. Into Benjamin’s maelstrom of inspired creativity and changeable, frustrated spirits comes the calming pleasance of Imogen. We are warned early on of the great composer’s caprice, even cruelty, whilst ‘Imo’ offers up no delusions of credit or billing for her contribution to the great project.

What follows is a delightful, immaculately performed two-hander that sensitively explores the burgeoning friendship and creative frisson between the duo. Ravenhill’s writing, and Erica Whyman’s measured, purposeful direction moulds two very distinct and contrasting individuals, bound though they are by one shared commonality; a deep passion and appreciation for music.

“…a delightful, immaculately performed two-hander that sensitively explores the burgeoning friendship and creative frisson…”

As each comes to learn more about their counterpart, and the inevitable stresses and pressures from external agencies come into play, boundaries, patience, respect and love are all put to the test. And, naturally for any biopic pivoting around a creative of Britten’s calibre, the fickle, tempestuous gremlin that is the artistic temperament regularly threatens to dash it all to the wind (or seas, in this case).

Perhaps most admirable is how keenly Ravenhill, Whyman and the two cast members balance both subtext and incident. Letters threatening cancellation or imposed changes to the opera’s Gala performance trigger the expected bouts of mania and catastrophising in Barnett’s irascible Britten. A New Year flood forces questions of living arrangements and even Imogen’s fee and finances. There’s the growing sense that Gloriana itself may be a wonderful piece of work, but will likely bore the royals to tears. There’s plenty that happens, and it’s always a delight to anticipate how these characters will respond, and what dent it may land in the armour of their partnership.

But so too does it all foster and explore deeper insecurities and dimensions within its leads. Britten’s ebbing mood segues to a need for a physical, nigh-maternal connection with Holst. The bravura and rage of the man regularly collapses to expose the shell of a spoiled, troubled boy. Holst’s wayfaring, nomadic ways and refusals to ‘settle’ offer glimpses at a fearless, if somewhat lost, soul. We get flashes, too, of her innate ability as a performer, singer and dancer, yet it is perhaps the trappings and humility of the time that keep her confidence as any of these things fleeting and caged.

If the art of great performance is to rob the audience of the need for suspension of disbelief, then it’s a feat Ben & Imo pulls off beautifully. Its characters feel real. Earnest, flawed, mercurial. It’s in no small part thanks to two gifted turns from Barnett and Yeates. There’s an effortlessness and immediacy to their chemistry, but also a raw, borderline physical edge to the more hostile moments. Barnett impressively wheels between commanding, vulnerable, terrifying and even heart-rending as the tormented, fussy, puerile Britten. Particularly notable is how Barnett’s disarmingly naturalistic depiction of someone with evident mental health challenges admirably never feels overplayed or performative. Intuitive, impressive and clearly well-researched work.

“Intuitive, impressive and clearly well-researched work.”

Victoria Yeates, meanwhile, is a sheer delight from the off as Imogen. Ravenhill thankfully affords ‘Imo’ plenty of growth and change, too, from her initially dutiful and hesitant assistant unwilling to speak or suggest beyond her station, to the more impassioned, forthright and defiant support rod their shared time forges her into being. Yeates (known to many for her roles in Call the Midwife and the Fantastic Beasts franchise) meets Barnett’s ‘darkness’ with a buoyant elegance and likability. Its a beautifully observed and layered performance from a deeply impressive actress.

The only real gripe about Ravenhill’s play, and Whyman’s execution of it here, is that music, almost ironically, plays a fairly distant second fiddle throughout. Conor Mitchell’s light accompaniments punctuate the odd transition, and Yeates and Barnett do get a handful of opportunities to tinkle the ivories themselves. But given the characters’ palpable love for their work, it seems somewhat slighting to have it feature in such a limited fashion. Imagine Amadeus with only momentary snippets of Requiem or Figaro. Unthinkable.

“…music, almost ironically, plays a fairly distant second fiddle throughout.”

Soutra Gilmour keeps things fairly functional when it comes to set design and staging, with Britten’s rotating piano centre stage and the odd shuffling of chairs and serving trolleys what little set dressing and change there is. The borders of the stage being given a blanket of white stones, coupled with the distant echoing of waves crashing upon the shore helps create a sense of place for Britten’s Aldeburgh retreat. A stylised take on an unexpected flooding midway through makes for an interesting visual and intriguing spot of symbolism both, but for the most part Ben and Imo lets its central partnership breathe and shine, unbothered by spectacle.

With little by way of theatrical frills and flourishes, this is for the most part precisely what it needs to be – solid, delightful and inviting theatre with neither pretence nor distraction. Handsomely acted, sensitively written, and carrying a surprising amount of poignancy and resonance.

It may not unearth a tremendous amount of historical detail or perspective that cannot be sourced about its eponymous pairing elsewhere, and is surprisingly light on that about which so much of its passion and friction pivots. But two stellar, absorbing performances help compose a winning, witty and heartfelt melody. One of the cost, cruelty and complicated truth of the creative genius, and the perhaps under-appreciated necessity of someone willing to cross the line and stand their ground in the face of its brilliance.

A handsomely performed, unshowy two-hander that lets its central partnership breathe and shine. Delightful, pensive, occasionally probing theatre.

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