Bennett's monologues offer a multitude of challenges for directors and actors alikeCreative Commons License

It’s brilliantly ironic that as the ADC reopens, and we finally get to feel that warm togetherness of being in an audience again, the stage has been graced with two of Bennett’s most searing portraits of loneliness.

Putting on a production of Talking Heads takes a bit of bravery. Forty minute monologues are a hard sell – you need enthralling actors to stop an audience tuning out, and being on stage means you can’t have the dynamic excitement of shifting camera shots, or close ups that the original broadcast used. But Thursday night’s audience were palpably gripped by Rae Morris’ production, and the quiet shocks of Bennet’s script were carried artfully by actors Bob Hewis and Aria Baker, who played Graham and Muriel.

Graham, the protagonist of the night’s first monologue, emerges on stage a skittish and scruffy son, feeling increasingly resentful after his elderly mother begins rekindling a relationship with Mr Turnbull, a man from her past. This paired well with Muriel in the following monologue, a mother and grandmother whose life is slowly disintegrating after her husband’s death. Both are caregivers – one caring for a child, the other for a parent – and at some points their pain felt interchangeable, emanating from their fractured bloodlines like something genetically inherited.

Like most Bennett monologues, sex rests under their surfaces, rearing its ugly head in painful ways. Much of Bennett’s brilliance comes in his deferral of revelation, the slow way in which disingenuous clues thread together become something unified, and Hewis and Baker held onto their secrets well; you could feel the weight of what they were hiding, and it made you need to hear more, to keep watching, to find out the truth.

“Much of Bennett’s brilliance comes in his deferral of revelation, the slow way in which disingenuous clues thread together become something unified ...”

Of course, nothing like ‘the truth’ ever really arrives – the characters are always incomplete – we can only get to hear what Muriel and Graham want to tell us, and the suggestions of schizophrenia and child molestation that bubble under the surface can’t be endorsed. They remain just possible, probable even, but leave you to wonder if you might be wrong for believing in them. Muriel is clinging to the heroic idea of her dead husband, and Graham is desperate for his mother to see who Mr Turnbull really is; their integral need to tell us about it all seems to fill the emptiness of what they want – of their sad desires. And it’s easy to start wondering, who are they putting on a show for? Who is listening?

Even though they seem to just be talking to themselves, or maybe out into the void, Bennett’s monologues do invite a kind of participation. Being split into intervals, so that every five minutes or so there is a break of a few seconds, Bennett allows pauses in which the audience’s suspicions and realisation can slowly develop. These moments exist in real time and in the fictional time of the monologue; they let the audience adjust their feelings and expectations according to what they’ve just heard.

“And it’s easy to start wondering, who are they putting on a show for? Who is listening?”

These voices, echoing out into their voids, work so well because they are functioning snippets. The production handled this brilliantly in Muriel’s monologue, where each gap between speeches brought someone on stage to remove a piece of furniture, so we could see her life being stripped away as an active visual process. Graham’s piece didn’t really grant as much of an opportunity to play around with the set, but the fluffy dressing gown he puts on at one point was perfectly unsettling. The viola music that played as the stage went dark, or in the second monologue, the furniture was removed, got a bit screechy and repetitive; though it did the job of unsettling us all, it grew weary after a while.


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Bennett’s world demands a simple set, and this one worked well transferred between the two characters (and the two from the night before) with a few little tweaks. The sofa, armchair, table set up all looked like a mediocre living or bedroom, perfect for pensive thinking, the kind of room you might sink into and just never leave. Its lighting had an artificial feeling and made the room feel dismal – a homely prison.

Graham moved around a bit on stage, but Muriel stayed static, poised in the armchair which ended up being her final possession on stage, stuck in her seat as if that’s where she might always be; likewise Graham, anxious, pacing, might be left like that forever. Hewis handled a few problems with his microphone with grace, and though the changed volume was a bit disconcerting, you could imagine how it might play well to his social awkwardness anyway, how losing his voice might be likened to his softening grip on reality.

“Graham and Muriel were so alone on stage – so unbearably, dysfunctionally alone ...”

The physicality of the characters had everything to do with their loneliness. They didn’t hold themselves as if they were being observed, but they never seemed comfortable, their bodies in constant states of agitation. Meanwhile, in the audience, we were slinked back in our seats, clinking glasses from the newly reopened bar, and, in my case, almost feeling guilty for how grateful I was to be in a theatre again. Graham and Muriel were so alone on stage – so unbearably, dysfunctionally alone – but there I was, surrounded by people, finally together.

It speaks to Bennett’s genius that whenever and wherever he is put on, he makes us realise what we’re most scared of.