Two Besides: A Pair of Talking Heads
Written by: Alan Bennett
Faber and Faber
Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera
What makes Alan Bennett’s Two Besides: A Pair of Talking Heads important is the context in which it came to life. The monologues are undoubtedly beautifully written and decidedly iconic, but that they were borne of the pandemic makes them utterly human and essential. Nicholas Hytner’s preface is as much a part of the book as the monologues, for it revisits the process of re-making Talking Heads into a BBC show during the pandemic. He discusses the artistic process and the vital importance art plays, especially theatre with its reliance on physicality, in connecting humanity despite the forced distance of quarantine. His preface is a reflection on how making art is inherently human, and that despite compulsory isolation we remain connected.
The monologues belong to a larger collection of 14, all uncomfortably candid. These two vignettes portray ordinary women, lost and confounded. An Ordinary Woman is a monologue of contrasts. The speaker wrestles with her wants versus what she knows to be acceptable, ordinary. Lust becomes disgust, love devolves into hate, the beautiful mutates into the grotesque, and the abnormal is normalised as she falls in love with the wrong person. The Shrine is a portrait of bereavement. Bennett captures the numbness, emptiness, blandness, and rawness of death. How in overcoming grief your loved one dies twice over. Both monologues are powerful sketches of what it inherently means to be human.
These monologues, already portraits of humanness, were brought to life when our own lives seemed so uncertain, bleak, and detached from one another, making them even more powerful, even more real, even more human. Reading just two made me crave the others. In the context of our larger global story, when we were barred from some of our basic human needs and in which many of us felt less human than ever before, Two Besides: A Pair of Talking Heads becomes a naked portrayal of ourselves, a reminder of our connectedness, our solidarity, and our humanness.