The Habit of Art
The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre Productions
The Lowry (Quays Theatre)
It's 8 years since Nicholas Hytner's original National Theatre production of Bennett's multi-layered portrayal of a fictional meeting between the poet W H Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten after a twenty-year estrangement came to The Lowry; now The Original Theatre Company brings it back with this new touring production directed by Philip Franks.
The play is set in a rehearsal room where a new play about Auden and Britten, Caliban's Day, is being rehearsed, with the two main characters played by experienced actors Fitz (Matthew Kelly) and Henry (David Yelland), whose own dispositions are not too dissimilar from those of their characters. On this day, director Steven has been called away to Leeds, so company stage manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) takes charge, also reading in, with the help of her assistant stage manager George (Alexandra Guelff), for a couple of actors who are off doing matinées.
Having just returned from Newcastle, the play's author, Neil (Robert Mountford), is sitting in and is rather precious about his play and not too fond of actors—perhaps he would be happier writing novels than plays. His prissy reactions to news of proposed cuts to his text and jibes from the actors are added to by an existential crisis from Donald (John Wark)—playing Humphrey Carpenter who wrote biographies of both men—who is worried that his character is just a "device" as, after an initial scene, he is merely a narrator. Tim, playing rent-boy Stuart (Benjamin Chandler), is also concerned, through the Caliban link, to make clear that his part is more important than someone who exists only to perform a basic function and be forgotten. Kay takes it all in her stride and deals with the fits of temperament calmly, as the best stage managers do so well.
This meeting in Oxford, which never actually happened, comes about because Britten is auditioning choirboys in the area and he wants Auden's advice on his new (and last) opera based on Thomas Mann's novel Death in Venice. While Auden is keen to muscle in on the project, Britten already has a librettist and merely wants some encouragement from an old friend.
It's all typical Alan Bennett in that it plays a lot with the form of the play, constantly commenting on the nature of acting and performance as much as on its apparent main subject, and brings two great and revered artists down to their base animal instincts and desires, with lots of witty lines. It also examines closely the nature of creating art and how that changes as the artists gets older—Auden says a few times that he now writes poetry merely because he has "the habit of art". All this is supposedly written by the young, hungry writer Neil, who also includes in his play scenes where Auden's furniture contributes some narration in verse that wouldn't look out of place in a panto. When something a bit naff comes out in the script, Bennett actually draws attention to it through the other characters' reactions and blames it on Neil—whom, of course, he also created.
Designer Adrian Linford's set looks right if a lot more cramped than the previous production, but then it is designed for smaller stages than the original, which was in The Lowry's Lyric Theatre, and had a design based on one of the National Theatre's rehearsal rooms, which are enormous (I've been in one once). Some of the characters slip over into becoming comic types, but the central performances are strong enough to hold it together.
Fitz / Auden is a gift of a part for any older actor and Kelly gets the most from a character who is mostly a brilliant bully but does have his tender moments. Yelland's Henry / Britten is prim, proper and repressed and looks quite at home behind a piano or holding a conductor's baton. Together, they are a perfect duo creating some compellingly powerful scenes.
Perhaps it doesn't quite come together as tidily as the original production—at times, the metatheatrical aspects, stopping for line prompts or comments, seem more of a distraction than an enhancement—but it's still a pretty good production of a very interesting piece on the nature of creating art as a flawed human being.