The Habit of Art
National Theatre production
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett's latest play for director Nicholas Hytner and the National Theatre is based around a fictional meeting between poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten after a twenty-year estrangement to talk about Britten's opera of Thomas Mann's Death In Venice and an interview between Auden and Humphrey Carpenter who wrote biographies of both men but met neither. But, being Bennett, there is rather more to it than that.
Bennett has wrapped up this straightforward story as a play by writer Ben called Caliban's Day that is being rehearsed in one of the huge rehearsal rooms in the vast National Theatre complex on the South Bank. The director has been called to a conference in Leeds, so stage manager Kay is left to run the rehearsal and to deal with the queries and fits of temperament from the actors and writer, just as all stage managers have to do. The form gives Bennett plenty of scope to have a go at the habits of actors, writers, directors and others in an affectionate but very funny way, and also allows him to not only show the characters to but also to incorporate comments on them and to add some background information, which would not be possible or would at least appear contrived in a conventional narrative.
There are some great moments of theatrical observation, such as when Brian and Kay have to fill in for two of the other actors who are "in the Chekhov matinée", and when Donald has an attack of existential angst as he worries that his character of Humphrey Carpenter is only "a device". Also, the actors find it difficult to hide their contempt in the presence of the writer for some of the more pretentious twists in the script, such as when the furniture speaks poetically about the room's occupant.
Between these bursts of theatre satire, we keep jumping back to Auden (played by Fitz who is as opinionated and tactless as his character) in his cluttered, filthy home where he mistakes Carpenter for the rent boy that he ordered and eventually entertains his former friend and collaborator Britten, who is much more refined and reserved than the great wordsmith and more discreet about his sexuality. While the scenes can drop into comment by the actors at any moment, there are still some thoughtful, tender and emotional moments and some ideas to stimulate thought and discussion in the audience.
Nick Hytner's production is pretty near perfect, putting across Bennett's vision without getting in the way. The set is designed by the legendary Bob Crowley and is a faithful reproduction of a National Theatre rehearsal room with a rough rehearsal set in the middle but still with plenty of detail. There are great acting performances all round, but it is noticeable that the older actors seem more natural than the younger ones who are perhaps still scaling their performances for the vast Lyttleton Theatre at the National.
Central to the production is a towering performance from Desmond Barritt as Fitz and Auden, both conceited and unpleasant but still with some sympathetic moments. Opposite him, Malcolm Sinclair is Henry, with his insights into gay life and rent boys in the early seventies, and Britten, who at first seems a ridiculously pompous character but Sinclair's wonderful performance turns him human and brings out real emotion and perhaps regret. The play and the play-within-the-play both centre on the meeting of these two characters, and their scenes are riveting to watch.
Matthew Cottle gets plenty of laughs without losing the believability of Donald with his insecurities over his character of Carpenter, and Selina Cadell's stage manager Kay is the strong one in the room who is the only one down-to-earth enough to hold everything together, as stage managers often are. There are also some nice performances from Simon Bubb as frustrated author Neil and Luke Norris as Tim who plays rent boy Stuart.
Bennett often is unfairly lumped in with safe northern humour such as Last of the Summer Wine but his stage plays are always daring with both form and subject matter and often touch on subjects that will offend some. This is a really great production of an intriguing and very funny play with some extremely impressive performances, but don't expect Sunday afternoon sitcom fare or indeed anything that would be allowed on TV before the watershed. It you are a drama student longing to use the word "metatheatre" in an essay, this play will give you plenty of opportunities to do so.
Seth Ewin reviewed this production in Glasgow
Reviewer: David Chadderton