Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Marianne Elliott
Subtly drawn but still with the power to shock, Nights in the Garden of Spain boasts some of Alan Bennett’s most complex characterisation. We meet housewife Rosemary Horrocks, as she relays to us the incredible story of her neighbours, Mr and Mrs McCorquodale.
At the beginning of an ordinary day, Rosemary (Tamsin Greig) is about to head out to Sainsbury’s, when she is accosted by Mrs McCorquodale. She asks Rosemary into the house. Her husband has died. Rosemary enquires whether it is a heart attack. Mrs McCorquodale shrugs and leads her into the front room. The husband lies in the carpet, barely dressed, with a bullet wound to the head.
As Mrs McCorquodale (we learn her name is Fran) is tried for murder, a picture of their marriage begins to emerge. Fran has a broken arm, missing teeth. Rosemary discusses the case with her husband Henry. He frets about house prices, as he wants to retire to Marbella.
Rosemary, a keen and knowledgeable gardener, begins to tend the McCorquodale’s plants. She sends photos of the revived garden to Fran, who has by now been found guilty of murder and sent to prison. As Fran and Rosemary grow closer, the letters turn into visits, and the women begin to confide in each other. The reality of Fran’s marriage is revealed slowly and hesitantly. The details become more and more disturbing.
In a piece where slow burn is everything, Greig takes great care with Bennett’s script and never rushes the big moments. Best known for comedy, Greig uses that timing to pull us further into Rosemary’s story. Director Marianne Elliott allows space for Greig to pause and breathe. Sometimes using these moments to look away, or right through us, Greig creates a tension, as we sit, anxious to hear what’s coming next. For a woman who describes herself as not able to keep a conversation going, Rosemary is a natural story-teller.
Greig conveys a woman who is used to swallowing down disappointment and regret, as she broadens Bennett’s monologue into a sweeping exploration of a woman’s heart. Using her experience across comedy and drama, Greig expertly moves from one shade to the other. Rosemary lives beyond the banality of social niceties. She scorns the tabloids’ puerile reporting of the murder; an already quaint and outdated view of suburbia.
As we join Rosemary in the final scene (the move to Marbella has happened) she tells us how life in Spain is treating her. While Rosemary is determined to resume her gardening: to make something grow in the unfamiliar Spanish soil, it’s clear that Rosemary has been changed by her experience. Tanned but looking thin, Rosemary’s voice breaks as she finishes her tale. Greig’s ability to convey emotional devastation is absolute and awe-inspiring. A work that plays with our assumptions right from the start, Nights in the Garden of Spain reminds us, should we need to hear it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary woman. Rosemary has heard too much. She is, in every sense, far from home.
Available here until June 2021