Alan Bennett’s new play People has annoyed the National Trust, with Trust chairman Simon Jenkins writing a defensive rebuttal in the Guardian. Perhaps because I am not the direct subject of the attack, I read it as a slightly more tongue-in-cheek assault than Jenkins implies. Bennett has created a provocative play on a significant issue, and I think People raises important questions about the conservation of our stately homes and how this can, or should, be funded.
There is a fine line between maintaining integrity and taste and introducing new ideas to draw in visitors and make money. The play could be a critique of the public as much as of the National Trust – it is their taste that the National Trust is allegedly catering to.
Stewart Lee has commented on the unwillingness of the Trust to let visitors think for themselves or to decide how to experience a property. It is this fostering of a “narrative” for the house, to the exclusion of all else, that Bennett attacks in People. I think sometimes the National Trust underestimates the ability of their visitors to soak up the atmosphere of a house or garden without needing to have it rammed down their throats.
Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett are perfectly decked out in the stereotypically eccentric garb of the impoverished upper classes, surrounded by priceless antiques but unable to afford central heating. They can only watch as their home crumbles around them. There is a strong ensemble cast, although de la Tour’s performance in particular carries the show. The set is also beautiful, although I actually preferred it in its dilapidated state – before the Trust has renovated the house to its former glory.
This is an entertaining play, and if it has also generated a renewed interest in the preservation of our stately homes and the role of conservation then it has done both the National Trust and the nation a service.