Alan Bennett’s new play “People,” in an NT Live broadcast by London’s National Theatre, begins as a Beckettian take on “The Cherry Orchard.” We observe a giant, stately, and decrepit room, with faded Persian carpets, furniture covered in white sheets, and a musty grayness pervading the air. The two women in the center, one bent over her knitting and the other in an absurd fur coat and knee-high socks, are barely indistinguishable from the decaying décor. The house, somewhere in South Yorkshire, symbolizes all that is standing but crumbling in post-Thatcher, post-recession England. Facing inevitability, one of these women—Dorothy (Frances de la Tour)—is charged with deciding how to make an exit. The question is whether to sell the house for a large profit to a league of “concerned” elites to preserve its eerie emptiness or donate it to the National Trust to make it into a tourist attraction.
Such is the dilemma of the play, a critically trenchant but also dramatically limiting situation that mostly gives de la Tour two hours of stage time to rage against the dying of the light. As Dorothy, she marches about pronouncing on the value of decay and commanding a queen’s attention in a captivatingly imperious performance. She makes music of Bennett’s bons mots. Dorothy’s pride, though, is directed toward her privacy. “People spoil things,” a proprietor tells her, and she agrees; the transition from home to tourist commodity means destroying all that is messy and real about her life. She won’t tolerate it, but all her attempts to avoid the situation, including a fun but drawn-out invitation to a porn director to shoot a scene in her living room, fail to save her. Despite its cynical wit and incisive commentary on the commodification of culture, served by Nicholas Hytner’s able and unobtrusive direction, “People” feels like an extended illustration of a predetermined principle. It’s a parable, not an investigation.
Bennett never gives the various salesmen who enter the house, each posing as Dorothy’s potential savior, a shot at sympathy or dimensionality. Their scenes quickly turn to tedium. As Dorothy’s withered and doughty “companion,” her half-sister, Linda Bassett gives the only performance equal to de la Tour’s. She plays the butt of half the play’s bit jokes with a humble skill that anchors her scene partner’s puffery. Selina Cadell, a third sister who advocates for turning the estate into a museum from her distant perch as archdeacon, makes a charming villain.
Bob Crowley’s detailed set is deceptively staid. In the play’s final sequence, the house is rapidly dolled up for visitors, and the room rears to life like a newly awakened dragon. Not since “The Phantom of the Opera” has a chandelier made such a devastating entrance. The speed and symbolic violence of the scene bring Bennett’s allegorical style from Beckett to Ionesco, from the dignity of decay to the mortification of polished beauty. Dorothy wanted nothing less than to be “metaphorized.” Bennett’s play willfully drags her nightmare into the daylight.
Presented by National Theatre Live. For a complete list of U.S. dates, times, and locations, visit www.ntlive.com.
Critic’s Score: B