Exploring aspects of Englishness at Chichester Festival Theatre

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Rachel Kavanaugh directs an Alan Bennett play for the fourth time when she opens a new tour of Bennett’s Single Spies at Chichester Festival Theatre (February 4-13).

“The first one I ever did was The Lady in the Van which I did years and years ago, and then I did The Madness of King George. I have also done Habeas Corpus, and now this.” Linking them all, Rachel believes, is the fact that Bennett is a proper wordsmith: “There is nothing that is not deliberately there. Nothing is by accident with Bennett, and everything is witty and clever and emotional. I think the actors love the rhythms. They find it all very natural and funny and sad. They have all got the swing in them from sadness to making you laugh and smile, and they are very often full of allusions. And they have all got Bennett’s sense of Britishness, the sensibilities of the British… I am talking about Bennett’s own idea of what it is to be British. They are about what this country means to him, but obviously they are very different plays, and I think it is very different in each play. Habeas Corpus is about a British sense of humour. The Lady in the Van is to do with a very British eccentricity, and The Madness of King George and Single Spies are plays about actual, historical events, plays about the relationship between the individual and the establishment.”

And in Single Spies, you get two plays for the price of one. Chronicling the lives of two members of the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring in the 1950s, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, the two pieces within Single Spies span the globe from Moscow to London. With forgery, fraud and hilarious blunders, Single Spies gives us a glimpse into a life full of espionage, secret identities and even an interrogation by the Queen.

Nicholas Farrell, Belinda Lang and David Robb lead a cast of six: five feature in the first play, all six in the second.

“What I really wanted to get the actors to appreciate on the first day of rehearsals is what the fact of double-billing actually means, to bring out what makes the plays more than the sum of their two parts is actually seeing them together. It really wouldn’t be as satisfying to see them separately several days apart.

“They each borrow from the other. There are themes that run across them, and in some respects each is the negative of the other. Blunt and Burgess were two very different men, but they both played their part in the Cambridge spy ring.”

We see Burgess in exile, and Blunt on the point of becoming a pariah: “Blunt is very cold. He says ‘People see me as cold’, but the investigating officer says ‘You work very hard at being a cold fish.’ Blunt in particular has created a persona. Burgess, on the other hand, was a legendary drunk and a brilliant raconteur despite his appalling personal hygiene. There is a huge, huge amount of testimony available about both of them.” But Rachel suspects Bennett’s interest in both is a kind of sympathy in itself: “There is something about their rebellion against society, perhaps because both were gay, perhaps that’s why they saw themselves as not really part of that society.”

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