Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Philip Franks
Reviewer: Michael Hootman
The Habit of Art sees Alan Bennett stake his claim to the same theatrical territory inhabited by Tom Stoppard. Habit is very much a play of ideas. Or, to put it more bluntly, a play of too many ideas. It’s a play-within-a-play which examines the very idea of theatrical devices whilst also looking at the vicissitudes of being an actor, the role of the biographer, the driving forces of art, loneliness, the role of the librettist in shaping music, the channelling of paedophilic desire and we even get to learn that The Tempest was, in some fundamental way, unfinished. Each digression is perfectly interesting and, being Bennett, well-written. It’s simply that taken as a whole the work feels a tad unfocused. It’s hard not admire the ground covered, but such a breadth of interest doesn’t seem to cohere into a satisfying whole.
The action takes place during a rehearsal of Caliban’s Day which is based on a fictional meeting between composer Benjamin Britten and poet W H Auden. The director can’t make it so the practical, mumsy stage manager (Veronica Roberts) takes up the slack by trying to move things on as briskly as possible. However, she has to contend with the frailties, tantrums and egos of that notoriously hard-to-manage group of workers known as actors. Fitz (Matthew Kelly) is the seasoned pro who likes to pretend that his voiceover work for Tesco’s is real acting. Henry (David Yelland) is the perfectly respectable thesp worried that his very dependability could count against him. Donald (John Wark) believes his role of Humphrey Carpenter, the biographer of both Auden and Britten, is there merely to impart information and has no internal life.
The “actual” play – which takes up the greater part of the evening – is certainly more interesting than the backstage shenanigans. Kelly is a truly astounding Auden. It would be easy to have the poet played as simply something of a curmudgeon. He certainly can be dismissively gruff, but he’s also mercurial and alive to everything from the creation of art to the life of the rent boy he’s hired for the afternoon. Yelland is incredibly likeable as Henry; he seems to have the gentle charm of a John Le Mesurier. He’s particularly compelling when, as Britten, he metaphorically bares his teeth in his intellectual duel with Auden: specifically when he avers with a savage determination that “music melts words”.
Bennett also has to tinker with this part of the work. It’s self-evidently supposed to be a “good” play yet despite it being very well written it’s also very badly written. It’s certainly amusing that the author of Caliban’s Day (Robert Mountford) writes dialogue for Auden’s furniture (because for Auden “everything is poetry”), but it stretches credibility that someone who writes as well as Bennett would include such a ridiculous conceit into the narrative.
Despite its flaws, The Habit of Art has many pleasures. It has a memorable central performance, and there are some very funny jokes – quite often about penises. Though towards the end we get to hear some of the Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes and truthfully it was then I felt moved for the first time in the play. So perhaps Bennett’s line about music melting words is, in this instance, truer than he might like.
Runs until Saturday 15th September | Image: Helen Maybanks