Once in a While... is not a comfortable play. The themes of the frustrations of creative genius and that of the emergence of homosexual love still do not sit easily, even in our liberal age. Certainly, The Company of Players brought out strongly the tensions set up by such situations. That the relationship between Auden and Britten was hypothetical rather than historical made it all somewhat irrelevant in my view, even if it did raise some interesting possibilities.
Once in a While... is also not an easy play. It is not well written and does no favours at all, neither to director nor to actor. It is written in a very self-conscious Audenesque quasi-poetical style, with repeated rhythms and cadences, which fight against any sense of dramatic development. It repeats a pattern of pretentious duologues, with such gems as 'I did not come here to seek the furthest shores of Bohemia', followed by self-conscious soliloquies.
Given such a straitjacket, The Company of Players did remarkably well. As Britten, Stuart Handysides was outstanding. He dealt with the constraints of the text with remarkable authority, injecting into it more wit and humanity than it deserved. His sensitivity and delicacy injected life into Paul Godfrey's lines.
As Peter Pears, Paul Morton worked hard to convey the mutuality and ambivalence of colleague and lover. The expression of homosexual love on stage is still an uncomfortable experience for an audience and, if it came across as something distasteful to get over as quickly as possible, perhaps that is not altogether surprising.
Mark James' Auden showed a laudable attempt to cope with one of the most complex and least understood people of the twentieth century. He was given little help by the text and managed to discover something of the tortured soul of the man.
Dramatically, the most successful characters were those of the two women - Beth Britten (Joanne Burnham) and Beata Mayer (Shelagh Ryan) - who were spared the poetry by the author, and allowed to be human. As a result, they came across as strong and likeable characters. It was with a great sense of relief that I heard Beth sound off at Britten, 'You don't hold the monopoly on emotions just because you're a poet!' I wanted to cheer.
Betty Janes' direction was not given much scope. She made the best of the very spartan set, although I would have liked to have seen fewer soliloquies from the front of the stage (as a member of the audience, I felt rather 'talked-at'!), and perhaps the characters could have remained on stage more during the soliloquies. Each episodic scene was rather punctuated by the characters going off and the lights dimming, which made it difficult for the play to flow.
The life of Benjamin Britten is an interesting one and I am glad to have seen the production. CoPs made a very brave attempt at putting it on and I applaud them for it. I just wish that they, and Britten, had had a better vehicle!
Andrew Morton is Head of Drama at the Heathcote School in Stevenage.