Britten In Brooklyn
By Zoe Lewis
The Haunted House
October 1940. Turn into maple tree-lined Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, you'll arrive at number seven, a rundown mock Tudor brownstone overlooking New York harbour and Brooklyn Bridge.
Behind these ramshackle walls live Englishmen in New York, composer Benjamin Britten and poet Wystan Hugh Auden, on the cusp of a turn from Marxism to ChristIanity, novelist Carson McCullers from the American deep south and Rose Louise Howick, better known as celebrity stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the midst of penning a detective novel. All of them are under the age of 35.
You couldn't make it up and playwright Zoe Lewis didn't have to, as all four of these and many more really did live in a short-lived artists' commune within the house which was finally demolished to make way for a new expressway in 1945.
Intrigued? We certainly were, especially as Britten In Brooklyn, directed by Oli Rose, is staged in the magnificent shabby chic surroundings of Wilton's Musical Hall..
In its kooky houseshare, there's scope for a 1940s' type screwball
comedy, seen from a twenty first century perspective, with a serious edge encompassing war, politics, literature,
Anglo-American relations, refugees and the chaotic lives of the
eccentrics and activists living within its walls.
compelling character is the house, in a multi storey design by Cecilia Carey, on the
stage surrounded by the crumbling majesty of the old music hall.
ground floor has as its centre piece a grubby white porcelain bath tub in a room with nooks and crevices, a worn armchair and lamp in one corner. Up
above is an outsize piano. An equally outsize simple picture frame serving
cleverly as a pointer towards artistic pursuits and the window overlooking the Brooklyn waterfront with another platform up leading to the roof.
Commissioned originally to celebrate Britten's centenery in 2012 the play starts promisingly. Tthe slight figure of Britten (Ryan Sampson) conducts delicate strains of his own composition while in the shadows are members of the Conscientious Objection Tribunal who interrogate his claim to be a pacifist and refusal to serve in the armed forces.
Alas, the play does not not sustain these fragile, rather beautiful first notes. While the play is called Britten in Brooklyn, it becomes an uncertain piece when other larger than life celebrated characters enter the play.
Rather than a crowded house, all hustle and bustle from one floor to another with its numerous tenants, we are only introduced to four characters, Britten, Auden (an imposing John Hollingworth) , Gypsy Rose Lee (Sadie Frost) and Carson McCullers (Ruby Bentall) who rattle around in the old brownstone.
It struck us that the meat of the play is the relationship between Britten and Auden, an area covered before by playwrights Paul Godfrey and Alan Bennett.
Nevertheless the playwright here has taken artistic licence in imagining that Carson McCullers, estranged from her husband, had an unreciprocated lesbian pash for Lee, ten years her elder.
At the same time, the one-note dialogue between the women has a tacked on quality, schematic arguments, with a bit of exposition and Carson's - presumably alcohol-induced - epileptic fits thrown in, rather than a fully developed relationship.
The bath, it turns out, is not explained as some element out of McCullers' books, or from some abstract painting created on the premises, or even a hint of illegal abortions, but simply as a receptacle for Carson to collapse into when drunk or having a fit.
An attempt to give Lee an anecdote showing her good hearted clear sightedness about American anti-semitism clumsily backfires with an obviously not intended ambiguity in the final line.
The lack of knowledge about what was happening to Jews in Europe also seems inconceivable in a house, in an area which was filling with Jewish refugees, which welcomed Erika and Klaus Mann children of Thomas Mann and his Jewish wife Katia Pringsheim with other tenants who either were Jewish or moved in Jewish circles.
Britten's and Auden's artistic partnership is more involving. But the play feels badly the lack of the characters of lovers opera singer Peter Pears and young Brooklyn student Chester Kallman. As well as landlord mercurial homosexual George Davis who actually brought Gipsy Rose Lee in, complete with cook and maid, to subsidize the commune and to help her write her bestseller detective novel "The G-String Murders". It would also would have been interesting and possibly added another dramatic dimension to have revealed who did own the building.
Auden's militant pacificsm is a little more explored but again it would have been digging a bit deeper to either dismiss or bring evidence to support whether his Marxism and a reluctance to be on the opposing side of the Soviet Union had any bearing.
There seems little inclination to delve into and develop any of the facts, dramatically and intellectually, and seek out the different possibilities. In fact, the reliance on imagery: the floors of the house, the bath, a defaced painting indicate far more the potential for a movie than a satisfying play.
As with the flatshare sitcom Friends (!!!), we get little hint of the economics bolstering this heavy drinking, drug taking and sexually liberal household. These are characters, who apart from the drinking and drug taking, continually have events happen to them including, in one instance, bad reviews ....
There is obviously a stonking story here (it's already been charted in individual biographies of the residents, a book on the artists' cooperative and a 2012 musical). Britten in Brooklyn is never boring. However it needs more focus and a far more rigorous dramatic investigation of the facts to create a satisfying drama, so the lower end of an amber light.