We know Benjamin Britten as a quintessentially English composer, with some of his best known works including an opera based in his hometown (Peter Grimes) and a Shakespeare adaptation (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but he spent a number of years during WWII on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s this period of his life that writer Zoe Lewis has focused on in her play Britten in Brooklyn, receiving its world premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall.
Here we have Britten living in New York alongside WH Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee, living bohemian-style in a cramped, dilapidated apartment filled with artistic knick-knacks. Think La Bohème, or even Rent, but with more philosophy. Art plays a central role in the play, as all four characters are at differing stages of their careers. Should art be an expression of the mind, or produced for commercial gains? How can inspiration overcome writer’s block? And how does the war stifle or generate creativity?
Mostly, though, it’s a play about guilt: the guilt Britten feels about his sexuality, about the death of his mother and how he was unable to be totally honest with her. This parallels a guilt towards his country. Britten left England for a number of reasons, but primarily it was to escape the war. Soon the war catches up with him.
It’s clear, then, that Lewis has weaved a complex web of themes within the play. As a result, it lacks focus, tension and drama. The first act especially revolves around the artistic philosophies of the central quartet that borders on pretentious. Only in the second act, once Britten is called to return to his country for the war effort, do we gain clarity in the real intentions of the play. Yet with so much psychological turmoil, Lewis and director Oli Rose are unable to make the internal drama palpable for the audience.
The acting, too, is a mixed bag. Ryan Sampson offers an honest and emotional performance as Britten, able to remain the focus of the play despite the character being encumbered by themes and overpowered by the other, more quirky characters. And Ruby Bentall’s offbeat, sarcastic humour as McCullers amuses as much as it paints her in a tragic light. Yet Sadie Frost overacts as Gypsy Rose Lee, her girlish, flirtatious act lacking charm.
Britten in Brooklyn delves into a lesser-known time in Britten’s life. Greater use of his music and a tighter focus could have made this an exciting prospect, but as it stands it’s an interesting piece with lofty intentions it never quite reaches.
Watch: Britten in Brooklyn runs at Wilton's Musical Hall until 17th September.
Photos: Marc Brenner