Habeas Corpus

Alan Bennett
The Peter Hall Company
Theater Royal, Bath
(2006)

Publicity photo

The first response on encountering Habeas Corpus, Alan Bennett’s 1973 farce, which roughly translates as, “you have the body”, is a tart, “you’re welcome to it”. To spend the best part of two hours in its necrotic company is to experience the sort of yawning cultural divide which induces fond thoughts of Noh Theatre, Amazonian nose flutes and the interminable Star Wars saga.

As Dr Johnson remarked apropos of a dog walking on its hind legs, the issue is not whether the thing is done well, but that it is done at all. True, Bennett is currently a hot property following the runaway critical and commercial success of The History Boys both here and in America. And the play’s theme of sexual obsession and frustration chimes with that mined by the other three works in repertoire here, namely Miss Julie, Measure for Measure and Look Back in Anger. But the stature of these time-honoured works merely serve to point up the slight and unmeritable nature of the arriviste, this Banquo at the banquet.

I take the point that Bennett, who is, it goes without saying, a writer of real worth, is working within a specific theatrical form – farce is farce and you either like it or you don’t. And, as one would expect, Habeas has moments of genuine wit – at one point Mrs Wicksteed, a proto-Hyacinth Bouquet, observes with rue, “My body, lying there wasted, night after night, in the pale moonlight; now I know how the Taj Mahal feels.” Still, these moments of sparkle only serve to highlight the wilful poverty of the piece as a whole which not even Hall’s surefooted, fleet direction and the best efforts of the eleven-strong ensemblet can extenuate.

The insurmountable problem is that the world has moved on since the play premiered, so much that it seems but a speck in the rear view mirror. It is time enough to date it fatally. One running joke has members of the cast exclaiming, with a mixture of wonder and delight, “This must be what they mean by the permissive society”, faced with the prospect of carnal propinquity. The phrase, “the permissive society” itself would, I imagine, be unfamiliar to younger viewers, conspicuous by their absence on the night I caught the play. And sock suspenders, prosthetic breasts and more dropped trousers than a rugby club night out; these things were only ever funny in the context of a Tory Ministerial scandal.

The underlying premise is that the whole of leafy Middle England is gagging for it but remains in a constant and frenzied state of sexual frustration. A fancies B who fancies C, played out in a format which combines elements of the game show, the sauce of an Donald McGill postcard, snatches of song, rhyming verse, soliloquies and an omniscient cleaning lady cum Sibyl. The cast, many of whom feature in Hall’s Measure for Measure, strive gamely, lending the necessary vim and conviction which all farce needs if it is to succeed. That it doesn’t is not their fault. Habeas was holed below the water-line before it ever set out. Let it lie, where it rests, full fathom five. Hopes, however, that this corpus will suffer change into something rich and strange are slim.

Reviewer: Pete Wood