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The Habit of Art



The NATIONAL THEATRE presents a World Premiere THE HABIT OF ART a new play by Alan Bennett in the Lyttelton Theatre.

Five years after the extraordinary hit, THE HISTORY BOYS, that toured the world, including Sydney at The Sydney Theatre, Alan Bennett has once again teamed up with Director, Nicholas Hytner, and now presents us with A HABIT OF ART.

The play is set in a rehearsal room and we observe a first run-through with sound, of a new play called CALIBAN’S DAY on a mock up set, with all the props and furniture, workable doors etc – an extremely elaborate set up indeed. (Designer, Bob Crowley). The director is away and the proceedings that we witness occur under the auspices of the Stage manager, Kay (Frances De La Tour) with the youngish playwright in attendance, Neil ( Elliot Levey).

CALIBAN’S DAY concerns a fictitious meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. (Both these men had worked together early in their careers. Auden had written the libretti for Benjamin Britten’s BALLADS OF HEROES (1939) and PAUL BUNYAN (1949).) But “Neil’s” play is set late in these men’s lives when Auden is Professor of Poetry at Oxford and Britten is in the process of preparing DEATH IN VENICE. This visit by Britten is the first the men have had for a very long time and for Auden it represents the possibility of a new, great creative work. For Britten it is the restless anxiety of the creative act that causes him to call in on the poet – he has a libretto but is not sure that it will do. Can Auden help? Could he make suggestions? Witnessing this meeting is a reporter from BBC Radio, Humphrey Carpenter, (He is an actual bio-grapher of both Auden and Britten [Tolkien,too]), who is at one point mistaken by Auden as his rent boy, come to provide a service – a blow job!!! Carpenter is saved from too much explanation by the arrival of the actual rent boy, Stuart.

This cast of characters in the play in rehearsal allows these men to talk of the difficulties of the habit of art and the different perspectives of the practice of homosexuality.

The play that surrounds this play, Alan Bennett’s The HABIT OF ART has Fitz (WH Auden) [Richard Griffiths], Donald (Humphrey Carpenter) [Adrian Scarborough], Tim (Stuart) [Stephen Wright] and laterly with a late entrance, Henry (Benjamin Britten) [Alex Jennings] rehearse and break the performance to challenge the writer and stage manager, to argue and discuss the machinations of the script and the realities of the scenarios in the context of their own lives. Life reflecting art. Life being gorged and revealed by the artists to create the art of Caliban’s Day. The absolute monstrousness of the habit of art.

The text is full of the usual jokes, humour, wisdoms and observations that we have come to appreciate from Mr Bennett. The set up of the play which I have attempted to outline, provides for a very complex, but easily followed, pathway to a very pleasant night’s entertainment. The play besides talking of the art of poetry and music, also engages in conversattion about the habits of the art of acting.

It is a very in-joke of an evening that is shared here by Mr Bennett for the regular theatre goer. It actually gets very specific (and, maybe narrows the scope of appeal) when the play engages in some very parochial self referencing and coziness, when we get the stage manager, Kay, reminiscing about the actual history of the National Theatre and some of it’s previous Artistic Directors. It got a little tiresome.

This is all done very well. The design is impeccable,if nothing more than close reality, the directing safely assured, and the acting very comfortable – maybe a little too comfortable. Richard Griffiths, apparently replacing Michael Gambon in rehearsal at late notice, was efficiently entertaining – more of what we have seen before, since the character in THE HISTORY BOYS was more interesting and there was quite a lot of PIE IN THE SKY – FOUR SERIES!!!!!); Alex jennings, strung a little too tight for my belief; Frances De La Tour doing her usual dry, sly comedy as only she can. In fact the most interesting work came from Stephen Wright as Tim (Stuart). maybe because he was not familiar. Although, in my estimation of the script, the company, mostly, had very little to play with in terms of character or tension.On the night I saw it, it was all just a little too “cute”, for a cultural foreigner, to truly embrace. I felt I got to know very little new about these “great” artists. I felt that I got to know more about Alan Bennett than I needed to know. I got bored.

As this is one of the play’s that are being broadcast around the world from the National Theatre Season, you will be able to make up your own mind at the Chauvel or Cremorne Orpheum Cinemas sometime in February.