Review: Ben & Imo

Jessica Harris visits the RSC for a modern-day musical treat.

Re-imagined from its original version as a radio play, Ben & Imo explores the relationship between Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst over the time when Britten was composing his grand opera Gloriana. A two-hander (Britten played by Samuel Barnett and Imogen by Victoria Yeates), the production is intense and riveting as it reveals the clashes and affinities between these characters.

As Britten embarks on Gloriana, commissioned for Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, the pressure on him is immense, and Mark Ravenhill’s script doesn’t hold back in its depiction of this impact on his personality. Ill-tempered, needy and defensive, Britten is also portrayed as controlling and unlikeable. In contrast, Holst (daughter of composer Gustav Holst), is effervescent, outgoing and collaborative. She is keen to support Britten’s genius and to enable the spread of his work at the expense of her own career.

The development of these characters, both through Ravenhill’s script and through the performances of Barnett and Yeates, is fully convincing. Britten’s focus is on himself, to the exclusion of all others. He suffers from self-doubt and descends into depression when he feels his genius is disregarded. Holst is equally concentrated on his work. Yet, appreciating that it is ahead of its time, she takes a longer-term approach, hoping to use education and dissemination as a means of enabling others to understand and enjoy it.

The realisation that Gloriana will ultimately fail brings their relationship to a head. Britten, lacking the ability to manage his emotions, resorts to anger as a means to control and ultimately break Holst. The level of cruelty he shows her is truly a shocking theatrical moment. How they move on from this power struggle will determine his future direction and achievements.

The setting of Britten’s house in Aldeburgh is used to great effect, the sound of storms being a metaphor for his anger. Just below the surface are suggestions of Britten’s attraction to young boys, complicated by the knowledge that, with Holst’s encouragement, he will go on to compose one of his best-received operas, The Turn of the Screw.

The script interweaves other themes relating to artistic expression, and it does so subtly and with humour. Post-Second World War saw an artistic renaissance with the setting up of state support for the arts. For Britten, however, the work produced in grand buildings and using the best talent available will be nothing but dull if no one is prepared to take artistic risks.

In one of many moments of comedy, Britten and Holst, drunk on rum and Drambuie respectively, imitate the piano playing of Wagner after three, six and twelve rums, each rendition more absurd than the previous. And perhaps the final point raised: what is the value of artistic genius unless there are means to ensure it is animated and shared?

Ben & Imo was programmed and directed by Erica Whyman. The composer was Conor Mitchell, pianist was Connor Fogel, and set and costume designer was Soutra Gilmour. The production is beautifully crafted, captivating and well worth seeing.

It is on at the RSC in Stratford until 6th April. For further information see

Pics – Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.