The monologue is possibly the most misunderstood dramatic device in all of theater. Often misconstrued for the soliloquy or the one man/woman show, the public tends to think of such solo showcases as some manner of standup comedy, or performance art. And with good reason. Most monologists are exactly, that – people with something to say, but without a character-based mannerism in which to enunciate it. Someone like Spaulding Gray, Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins, take the stage, set up a podium, and just pontificate. There is nothing wrong with this singular strategy. After all, all three of the aforementioned speakers are (or in the case of late, great Gray, was) capable of captivating an audience with their mere thoughts and ideas. But technically, they aren't performing monologues. If they are engaged in anything remotely literary, it's oration, or public speaking. In order to truly be a monologist, one must perform monologues. And monologues are singular, character driven stories or plays dealing with an individual's fictional trials and tribulations. Unless you frequent your local theater, you will find very few examples of this literary device roaming the college and/or lecture circuit. The true monologue seems to be a dying art form (all Vagina variations excepted), but at least one author has tried to keep it alive. Alan Bennett has written dozens of first person parable and seen them win both critical and popular success. He is perhaps best known for his work with women, and one grand dame he's had the pleasure to craft words for is Patricia Routledge. Over the course of two and a half decades, the duo has worked on several small plays and TV shows together. The results of some of their efforts are now available on DVD from Warners and the BBC. Patricia Routledge in Three Portraits is as clear an example of how Bennett's words and Routledge's performance make theatrical magic.
Outside the UK, few have probably heard of Alan Bennett and/or Patricia Routledge. Of the two, Routledge should be the more famous, as PBS (and now BBC America) can't seem to stop showing her well-worn British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. Centering around the Buckets (pronounced like the bundle of flowers, 'bouquet') and, in particular flustered old fussbudget Hyacinth Bucket's desire to outdo her sisters Violet, Daisy and Rose, this perennial fan favorite about class and family has made Routledge – who plays Hyacinth - an international name. Bennett, on the other hand, doesn't quite have that kind of populist prominence behind him. He is merely a world-renowned playwright, perhaps best recognized for The Madness of George III (both on stage and on the silver screen), along with his well-received teleplay collections on the BBC. Something like Three Portraits will therefore be quite the eye-opener for individuals interested in either artist. Culled from Bennett's prize-winning series Talking Heads (the first story, "A Woman of No Importance", comes from his 1982 show Objects of Affection), this triptych of monologues is a meaningful, mysterious viewing experience. With just one actor inhabiting three divergent roles, we get a window into the world of older single women that usually is foreign to movie and television fare. Individually each story is an avenue into a different aspect of personality, problems and pride. Focusing in on each short separately, we can see the method in Bennett's solo voice variations:
A Woman of No Importance (1982):
Margaret Schofield is a copy clerk for a large company. She has a set schedule by which she runs her day, and doesn't like it when even the tiniest element of her existence goes askew. Everyday at lunch, she meets the same group of people, and they all eat at the same table. Everyday, she discusses the snotty management and the poor, pathetic employees far less punctual and organized than she. Being a single lady, she scoffs at the slightest suggestion that her life is empty. Friends and colleagues may warn her about her lost, lonely days, but she sees everything through a slightly askew pair of rose-colored glasses. Then, one lunch hour, she's asked to do a favor for the boss. She arrives at the canteen late and all of her friends are scattered around the room. The usual table is taken and the only seat available is near the exit. And above all else, the salad bar was far to busy for her usual mealtime repast. So today, she has taken to having the hot meal. And now, she's noticed her stomach feeling a bit...odd.
Our first of the monologues by Bennett showcases the system he will follow throughout Talking Heads, a far more theatrical sense of flare and confidence than we expect from a single actor performance. Bennett incorporates a great deal of implied action in his set pieces, moving us both mentally and physical through the trials and triumphs of his characters. There is also a bit of deception to Bennett's presentation. His solo stories always seem to be about something else, only eventually veering off into the main thrust of the drama. In the case of Margaret Schofield, we initially think we're about to visit one of those notorious British pepperpots who seems to make everyone's business – and secrets – their own. Margaret starts out dishing the dirt about the people she works with at your typical London firm: part of Bennett's brilliance is that he has us envisioning locations perfectly within our mind's eye, never once having to rely on overt descriptions to set the scene. But before we know it, a telltale aside ("That's when I noticed my stomach..." ) becomes the real focus of the piece. As we progress through Margaret's illness, through the peaks and valleys of wellness and despair, Routledge does an amazing thing. She never once lets her sickness overtake her spirit. The same busybody Margaret Schofield that we meet at the beginning is the same bright spirit trying to shine through beyond all the harsh health issues. The voice is there, as is the glint in the eye, even as an unnamed enemy (the assumption is cancer) is sapping her life away.
A Woman of No Importance is a sad piece, a look at loneliness and loss that is occasionally hard to reconcile. Routledge is amazing, using occasional acting tics (the way she cocks her head back whenever she recites the phrase "We laughed...") and magnificent facial gestures to give her performance a perfect, layered effect. Bennett is not known for writing epiphanies. Indeed, you can say that with one of this Talking Heads scripts, the proof is in the details. We learn more about Margaret, her co-workers and her depressing situation from keenly observed moments and individual insight than we do with grand glorious statements about the human condition. As a listener, one half anticipates the message, waiting for it to come barreling out of the actress in some overwrought moment of misery or malice. But it never does arrive. Instead, the minor squabble or insignificant inconveniences pile up until the karmic canvas is there, right before our widely opened eyes. Part of the power in something like Talking Heads and A Woman of No Importance is the way in which it sneaks up on you, never completely giving away its purpose or piling on the melodrama. Combined with Routledge's dead-on delightful acting skills, this amazing tale starts off this set on the right footing.
A Lady of Letters (1987):
Irene Ruddock is a complainer. When she attends the funeral of a friend and notices some workmen smoking, she writes a letter to voice her disgust. When a step near her flat needs repairing, she corresponds with the council. When they fix the faulty stoop, she grumbles about the piles of dog doo left behind. Irene can fidget about anything – a reminder to get her eyeglasses repaired, the length of the Archbishop of Canterbury's hair, another one of those puppy presents, this time in front of Buckingham Palace. And every time she writes, her language gets more vitriolic and threatening. But when she suddenly shifts focus onto her new neighbors, a young couple with questionable parenting skills, she really starts some trouble. It's not long before priests are arriving at her door and the police wish to question her about some damning notes she's sent to local businesses. Irene claims she is just concerned about the well being of the child living in the house. But we soon learn that everyone, including the local know-it-all, has a lesson or two to learn about judgment.
Following in the surefooted path of A Woman of No Importance, some may find A Lady of Letters a sort of letdown. Far more comic and extreme than the subtle work of grace and sadness before it, Letters can come across a bit loony. But this is also part of Bennett's magic. Routledge is brilliant as a lonely old spinster taken to writing vicious and vindictive notes to anyone – companies, bureaucrats, mortuaries – as a means of connecting with the rest of the world. She is a desperate lady, looking for adventure and intrigue in the most mundane of places. A great deal of A Lady of Letters plays like farce – Routledge turning up the old maid meanness of her character to amplify the irony. But when we eventually learn where her craving for correspondence gets her, the joke is on everyone involved, including the audience. Indeed, Bennett has done it again, overwhelming our normal expectations with a completely original turn of events. The ending is equally amazing, bringing everything together in a wonderful, cathartic manner. Many may not see it, but when Routledge's character shares an intimate moment of acknowledgement with the viewer, explaining how she's taken to comforting someone who is haunted by their horrendous past mistakes, the turnaround is sweet and satisfying. Here is a woman who basically finds herself in trouble for doing the 180-degree opposite of what she tells us now brings her so much happiness. That we can experience such a transformation over the short course of 30 minutes may seem like a miracle, but that's the delight of Bennett's work. The cause for such coversions is always in place. It is up to Routledge to find it, and let it out.
Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet (1998):
Poor Miss Fozzard, her life is in such turmoil. After 12 years of faithful service, her favorite chiropodist is retiring and moving to the country. And without her weekly visits, Miss Fozzard feels lost. Since she left work to care for her invalid brother, her feet haven't been the same. Luckily, she gets a recommendation for a new specialist, a 70-year-old retired gentleman whom Miss Fozzard takes an instant shine to. Over the course of her treatment, the couple share witty insights and the occasional glass of sweet sherry. One day, her new chiropodist makes an odd request of Miss Fozzard: would she walk on his aching back in some new soft shoes he's purchased for her? Thinking nothing of it, the proud patient agrees. Thus begins a strange ritual for the pair, one that leads to even more "shocking" situations. Meanwhile, with her brother on the mend, Miss Fozzard feels her life coming back to normal – that is, until rumors start flying around the workplace about Miss Fozzard and her "friend".
In what is the most subtly subversive piece in the entire set, the story of Miss Fozzard and her late in life role as a chiropodist's fetish mistress (naturally, he has a foot fixation) is a brilliant, brave combination of humor and pathos. It balances perfectly the growing acknowledgement of Miss Fozzard and her new role in the patient/therapist relationship with the growing burden of her sick brother (the victim of a stroke). Throughout it all, Bennett peals back the narrative like the skin on a saucy peach, letting us slowly realize how risqué, and ridiculous, Miss Fozzard's fate has become. The added element of the brother, whose recovery we follow in his sister's straightforward updates, is perhaps the real point of this entire enterprise, a stern reminder that life is not one constant flow from a single situation to the next, but a myriad of issues piling up on top of one another until the burden can no longer be carried. Mixing such a miserable tale with the kinky conceits of elderly perversions is signature Bennett scripting, and Routledge dives into his writing with untold amounts of zeal. This is the best acting in the set, Routledge performing all the parts (brother, chiropodist, co-workers) giving each one a distinct vocal and physical mannerism. She also broadens her facial gestures, allowing us insight into the type of person who would help an old man fulfill his secret shoe-based fantasies. Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet is funny, rich, detailed and just a tad bit depressing (the fate of the brother is just one body blow after another). The end result, though, is wicked and witty, leaving us wanting to know more about Miss Fozzard, her chiropodist, and those Wellington Boots he's just purchased.
It has to be said again that Bennett is not a big picture kind of guy. Those looking for solo orations that span the universe, picking out maxims and plaudits until the words and witticisms transcend their meaning will be greatly disappointed. Three Portraits is about character, about all facets of individual personality. And certainly there is a universal quality to his works. But we are not really looking for discussions of the human condition here, nor is Bennett offering any. Via his deceptive literary detective work, we are given the clues and the cues to follow, and the great writer in our mind makes all the connections for us. There is a great feeling of interaction in these Talking Heads excerpts, like the sensation one gets after solving a riddle or working out a puzzle. With just the simplest turns of phrase, Bennett manages to springboard off into a thousand varying ideals, each one more amazing than the next. Without a substantial muse to manipulate his works, however, these portraits could very easily be plain and ordinary. Thankfully, Routledge is completely up to the task of bringing these imperfect women to life. He acting is graceful, mannered and very controlled. She doesn't really loose herself in the roles so much as find the part of her that each one of these characters reflects. The directors for this series (Giles Foster did Woman and Letters, Patrick Garland did Miss Fozzard) understand that the vast majority of the truth in any circumstances registers on an individuals face. And since Routledge is so adept at visual performing, this makes a perfect pairing.
Why Warner's and the BBC chose not to release the entire Talking Heads series, and just those installments featuring Ms. Routledge is understandable but sad. Certainly trying to capitalize on the growing cult of sitcom fans, focusing solely on the Mrs. Bucket that everyone knows and loves makes logical sense. But we miss out on other great performers (Julie Walters, Maggie Smith) and any theme or focus Bennett tried to create with these shows. It's not like the public would be bored seeing other actors here – the visual flair in each show is stellar. Indeed, the invention of simple sets, mood lighting and the merest suggestion of location gives each of these short segments a fine, fresh angle of approach. Perhaps one day we will get a collection of all Bennett's television monologues. If Patricia Routledge in Three Portraits is any indication of the quality, the wait will be far too long.
The presentation of these three monologues is mixed from the aspect ratio reality, but stellar in their transfer and video clarity. Both A Woman of No Importance and A Lady of Letters have an old-fashioned feel their 1.33:1 full screen image, with muted colors and earth tones gently shading the stories. The newest installment, Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet is presented in a widescreen, non-anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation that really doesn't add very much to the visual style of the story. This is also the only episode that features any real setting. While Woman and Letters both used expressionistic, minimal production values to showcase their speeches, Miss Fozzard gets a full parlor. Opulent or not, suggestive or sumptuous, the picture presented on this DVD is nearly flawless.
If there is a problem with this offering by Warner's and the BBC, it's that Patricia Routledge in Three Portraits is poorly mixed. The Dolby Digital Stereo just does not seem up to the challenge of catching all of Routledge's vocal variations. We miss certain words as Patricia lowers her register and sometimes, entire lines feel forgotten or lost. You'd figure through all the deafening silence (there is no musical accompaniment to these monologues) we'd be able to hear everything in crystal clarity. Well, maybe it's the fault of the original elements, or the reconfiguration to DVD, but throughout Woman and Letters, the aural attributes are suspect at best. Only Miss Fozzard is perfect all the way through. Naturally, it is the newest piece in the set.
In addition to the three performances here, we get a chance to see Routledge and Bennett work together, both in real life and again in the fiction realm as this DVD presents us with two superb bonus features. Our first added attraction is a 20 minute appearance on Alan Titchmarsh's Pebble Mill talk show (bet you Ground Force fans didn't know that one) and the other is a full presentation of the first work Routledge ever did for Bennett, the role of a snooty officer worker visiting her retired boss in the short teleplay A Visit from Mrs. Protheroe. The interview is interesting for everything it doesn't dwell on. Bennett is a big name in England, but he is notoriously reclusive and highly eccentric. While we learn some minor details about the creation of his plays, we discover much more about the man's odd life (he apparently let a homeless woman live in her van, on his property, for 15 years!) than his career arc. Routledge arrives halfway through and is more or less along for the ride. She offers up some acting tidbits, but still seems like she's putting on a performance. Very entertaining and quite enigmatic, this Q&A seems to pose more questions than it - or the guests for that matter – actually answers.
A Visit from Mrs. Protheroe is another matter all together. A sensational bit of understatement, Routledge plays a horrible old cow of a secretary who stops by her retired bosses home to pour salt in his old-fashioned work ethic wounds. A man who prides himself on the job he did organizing his firm, Mr. Dodsworth (actor Hugh Lloyd is marvelous as the tiny, timid man) is devastated after Mrs. Protheroe comes to call. She is really only there for one purpose – to prove that Dodsworth's successor is doing a much better job. The basic storyline allows for all manner of interpretation, and Lloyd and Routledge play off said tension and trickery to the hilt. While all the discussion about modernization and computers may come across as dated (this production is from the technologically innocent year of 1978) there is still a great deal of truth in its 'out with the old, in with the new' ageism mentality. It is one of Bennett's most fully realized works at nearly 40 minutes, and makes for a fine two person playlette. In addition to all the other wonderful material here, A Visit from Miss Protheroe is excellent.
There is also a page through biography on both Bennett and Routledge, featuring personal and professional information, along with a selected filmography and/or bibliography.
It is often said that what makes a writer great is their ability to observe. Not just look, or visualize, but to really pierce beneath the surface of people and circumstances and distinguish the truth underneath. Alan Bennett has that rare gift, that ability of second layer sight, and he plies it exceptionally well in these Three Portraits. Patricia Routledge's amazing acting work and clever characterization aside, it is the words, the statements, the monologues that really shine here. In a mere matter of moments, we gain generations of insight into human frailty and personal pain. Over the briefest span of interaction, we uncover decades of grief, years of disappointment and fleeting seconds of happiness. Though not always a dour or dire experience, Three Portraits is that carefully crafted conceit that finds the tragedy in the comedy and the humor in the catastrophic. You may not know women like the ones presented here, or maybe you are all too familiar with them. It really doesn't matter, though, since Bennett gives us all the keys to understanding we will ever need. Routledge gets the privilege of placing them in the lock and giving them a turn. Fans of Keeping Up Appearances will be floored by the depth of their favorite comedienne's performances in Three Portraits. And hopefully, Bennett will find a new fanbase for his work. He is a true monologist, the last of a dying breed. Patricia Routledge in Three Portraits may only partially preserve his special talent, but it does so magnificently.
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