As Olivier Award-winning actor Alex Jennings says when we meet huddled around a tiny bar heater in the lofty heights of the Menier Chocolate Factory where he is rehearsing, Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories “came in under the radar”. The double bill of short autobiographical Alan Bennett plays was originally programmed to be performed sporadically at the National Theatre in the early evening before the audience arrived for the night’s main attractions.
Yet, like so much of Bennett’s work, they seem to have struck a chord. Hymn, which mixes music played by the Southbank Sinfonia with memories of Bennett’s childhood, and Cocktail Sticks, which features a son talking to his dead father as his mother yearns for a different life, proved a quiet hit. They earned a transfer – and regular performance schedule – in the West End’s Duchess theatre.
So, in a chilly Southwark rehearsal room, the cast is preparing and Jennings, so abused recently as Mikhail Bulgakov in Collaborators, is once again preparing to play the playwright whose previous offerings include The History Boys and The Madness Of George III. He shared his thoughts on Bennett, playing real people and the National Theatre with us:
I first worked with Alan as actors together in a TV series called Ashenden for the BBC. We filmed together in Austria and in Hungary. That was 20 years ago. It was a big glossy BBC series that was going to change my life… then nobody watched it.
It’s weird playing somebody that is so much a part of the national life. I grew up watching Alan’s work, all his films and stuff on the BBC were cultural events. Talking Heads. An Englishman Abroad. They were real event television.
I’d already done Hymn as a recital, so I came to this production with my Alan Bennett. Other actors may approach it in a different way. I can’t. I have to have him in my head, have his voice in my head. I listen to him in my dressing room. He was there in rehearsals. He says it’s odd for him, but he does keep putting himself in his plays. There’s two of him in The Lady In The Van.
I don’t really look like Alan. People say there’s something. The set of our mouths. I do something with my mouth which is from observation, but the shapes of our faces are not wildly dissimilar. Some people have a perception of him that’s wrong, they think of him as Moley from The Wind In The Willows. He’s not at all. He’s tall. I’m a little bit taller.
I’ve played, for whatever reason, quite a lot of real people. Prince Charles, George Bush, Benjamin Britten, Alastair Campbell and John Le Mesurier. It’s a different kind of process from playing Hamlet. The parameters within which you can work are narrower, which is quite a good discipline. Whenever I’m playing Alan or Prince Charles I steep myself in listening to them and watching stuff. I refresh myself with watching footage of Alan. I hope I am doing something more than an impersonation. I’m trying not to do the Spitting Image version and absolutely not to send him up or caricature it. It’s quite useful to have the guidelines of the actual person, the cadences of their voice, their physicality. You take what you want from the person and somehow you bring yourself to it as well.
In Hymn, I’m the fifth instrument of the quintet in a way. I love working with musicians. I know the piece really well. When I first did it as a recital I had a very close relationship with the cellist who would nod me in, I’d be cued by him. Now I know the music well enough to be weaving in and out as another instrument, which is very pleasing to do.
There are truths within Untold Stories that are about all of us. We’ve all got relationships with our mums and dads, and have all suffered from insecurity and shyness in some form. All of that makes it not just about Alan Bennett naval gazing. There’s something about the relationship with his mother in this. My mother died last year and I absolutely recognise what he’s saying there. It completely connects with the experience I went through. The whole aspect of Alan’s cancer and how he dealt with that and the positives of that that are presented in Cocktail Sticks. People who’ve been to see it who are going through cancer or have been through cancer have found it incredibly affirming and encouraging. That’s all to say that there’s a wider spectrum in his work than it just being a memoir about his funny little life in Leeds.
I think Nick [Hytner]’s tenure at the National Theatre has been extraordinary. I think the way he’s opened the repertoire out, tried to widen the audience base to make it more diverse, has paid huge dividends and made it a hugely exciting place to work. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked there a lot. I’m sure there’s a lot of actors out there thinking “For Christ’s sake, why does it have to be Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings again”, but Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings are very happy, thank you.