Ben and Imo: Benjamin Britten’s tortured male genius makes for torturous drama

Samuel Barnett and Victoria Yeates in Ben and Imo
Samuel Barnett and Victoria Yeates in Ben and Imo - RSC/photo EllieKurttz

It’s hard to think of many works of art that centre on a man subsuming his time and talents in order to encourage a woman’s prodigious creativity – the same cannot be said of the reverse. With the RSC’s latest production yet again we are tiresomely confronted with the time-honoured narrative of a solid and dependable female treading carefully around tortured male genius.

The pair in question in this talky two-hander from Mark Ravenhill are Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, daughter of composer Gustav (‘Gussie’) and a gifted musician in her own right. Britten (Samuel Barnett) is struggling with Gloriana, his ‘grand’ opera commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II, and Holst (Victoria Yeates) has been summoned to his house in Aldeburgh as his musical assistant, or general encourager-in-chief. He is nervy and whimsical, temperamental and petulant, while she is relentlessly cheerful in the jolly-hockey-sticks manner of the early 1950s. Erica Whyman’s production, which unfolds on a set dominated by a grand piano, does not wear its two-hour running-time lightly.

One of the great ironies, not to mention cruelties, of the arts is the fact that dramas about the creative process are generally very dull to watch. This piece is no exception, as it struggles to break free from its origins as a radio play first performed to mark the centenary of Britten’s birth in 2013 on Radio 3. Britten and Holst lean over the score and fret about Elizabethan dances; Barnett worries about whether his partner Peter Pears will assume the central role and plays occasional attractive snatches of piano music.

Britten requires Holst’s constant input (“I want you to tell me what I want to do”) but resents her assuming any sort of control over the work. When he is feeling particularly anguished, he turns on her savagely. Accustomed by her upbringing to dedicating herself to the professional life of a great musical man, Holst stoically puts up with it, even though she is not being paid a proper salary – Britten erroneously assumes that she is living off the royalties from her late father’s work – and is lodging in one spartan room.

Barnett and Yeates try their hardest to ride smoothly through the rather artificial gear shifts in the scenes, as arguments erupt out of nowhere to stoke flagging dramatic momentum. Pathetic fallacy is also never far away, as the sounds of the Aldeburgh sea mirror Britten’s roiling moods. Holst is by far the more interesting character here and Yeates, who is much given to flinging her arms up in the air to convey Imo’s unflagging exuberance, offers intriguing hints about this fiercely independent free spirit who is unwilling to put down roots in any one place. We leave the theatre caring little for the fate of Gloriana – it wasn’t well received – but wondering instead how great Holst’s untrumpeted talent truly was – and whether it would have come to prominence had she too behaved in the manner of a peevish genius instead of assuming the role of a steadfast head girl.

Until April 6 (01789 331111,