Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a play within a play based on a fictional meeting between poet W.H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, premiered at the National Theatre back in November 2009 with the production going on to tour in the Autumn of 2010. This year, the Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal will present the first ever revival of the play – kicking off at York Theatre Royal on 30 August and then embarking on a national tour.
The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, who are on the list of tour stops already announced, invited The Reviews Hub’s Nicole Craft along to the press launch in Oxford where she caught up with leading actors Matthew Kelly and David Yelland and director Philip Franks to find out more about the play, its revival and what attracted them to these particular roles.
For David, the appeal of the role is an easy one to sum up and he initially does so in “one word – Alan Bennett”. Going on to point out that Alan Bennett is technically two words and then to elaborate, he says the opportunity came via Philip Franks who he had worked with before and was “always a very strong recommendation because he has got great taste, apart from being a very clever director. We happened to be working together when this arose so that’s what made me look at it and want to do it. Then when I read it I could see it was a very brilliant piece of work”. Although not especially familiar with this particular play, David goes on to say that having been in a Bennett play before and very much enjoyed it, he admires his writing greatly. Philip agrees with David that Bennett was certainly the main draw, having previously directed and acted in his plays but also being fond of watching them. “I didn’t see this when it was done at the National and I regret not seeing it as I’m very interested in Britten and Auden. So I read it completely, I knew nothing about it, and was really surprised by how humane and how touching and how funny it is and it just seemed like a really good opportunity as this is the first production since the premiere at the National…it’ll be really exciting to have a go at it”.
Matthew is certainly on the same side of the fence with Bennett being a huge factor in his taking of the role, second to actually being offered it in the first place, but also comments that he is following in the footsteps of a late college friend. “The original man who played it was Richard Griffiths, and Richard and I were at college together and I followed his footsteps into The History Boys in Sheffield in the week that he died, and he was a dear man, a lovely man”. “I asked his wife about this, whether she minded that I keep taking over his roles and she was incredibly generous about it… but why else did I take this? Well, I love Alan Bennett stuff. I’ve done Kafka’s Dick twice, once with my son about, it must be nearly 20 years ago…then I did it again in Bath about four years ago and then I did History Boys”. He goes on to say that he finds Bennett “very supportive and kind and nurturing” and as a result, he really enjoys doing his plays which he describes as “many-layered”.
So what is The Habit of Art all about and who will it appeal to? Philip, quite simply, sums it up as being “a very moving play about many things other than its title”, going on to say he doesn’t want people to be scared by thinking they have got to know a lot about 20th-century classical music or poetry. “What you have to be is somebody who knows what it’s like having a relationship with your work, what it’s like having a friendship that might have gone wrong, what it’s like looking age or maybe illness in the face, what it’s like being in a workplace – and that’s pretty well everybody!”. Matthew adds his, evidently well-rehearsed, views of it being about important stuff like “sex, like creativity, like death… like life” and describing Bennett’s plays as giving voice to the un-regarded. “The stars of the piece, I suppose, are Auden and Britten, but they don’t have the last word. The last word belongs the rent boy who is an unregarded person and says ‘we never get a say, we people who look after everybody else and who nurture them and are satellites around them, nobody ever listens to us’ and so he gives voice to the people with no voice”. “At the same time [Bennett] is witty, intelligent…he just has a remarkable take on life and I think he sees the world in a way that we should all see it”, Matthew adds laughing. “I think so anyway, I’m just a massive fan, that’s all”.
With this being the first ever revival of the play, the obvious question to pose is whether it will be trying to follow exactly in its predecessor’s footsteps or whether there are plans to shake it up a bit. Philip is quick to answer that they are “not remotely trying to replicate the original. The original is very very specific to the National Theatre where it was first performed. Indeed, there are references in the script to the National Theatre and there is an enormous cast on the page to do with the resources of the National Theatre – none of which, brutally, you can do on tour with budgetary restrictions. Also, I didn’t want to do it as it is yet another frame. The play is a play within a play centred on a group of actors who are rehearsing a play about Auden and Britten and if you then put it inside another frame which is, ‘we are pretending to be at the National Theatre’, it’s a frame too many so we’ve judiciously cut and pruned so that it is a rehearsal room that could be anywhere…it could be in whatever city we happen to be performing it. So you keep the play within a play structure but it doesn’t become a sort of ‘in-joke’ about a particular building on the South Bank, it becomes about what it’s like doing a play”.
With a few weeks left until rehearsals begin, the agreed consensus is one of calm anticipation and enjoying that golden period where worry about the end result hasn’t yet set in, despite jokes about the inclusion of dance routines and daft hat swaps to separate characters not having yet been ruled out. The inevitable challenges of a tour loom – although David argues that if anything, being on tour should make acting easier as it does most of the work in keeping a play fresh, taking the onus off the actors to make that happen – but Philip is confident that the set is cleverly designed to be very adaptable and the feel of the play should remain identical everywhere they take it; and Matthew is taking everything in his stride and is looking forward to being in the limelight again and doing what he does best.
The Habit of Art opens at York Theatre Royal on 30 August 2018 and then tours. Tickets available at Originaltheatre.com
Nicole Craft | Image: Contributed