Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Philip Franks
Designer: Adrian Linford
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Aside from his wonderful monologues, Alan Bennett tends to write plays that are not what they seem, made up of seemingly irreconcilable elements: even the perennially popular History Boys goes off at what seems to be a bizarre tangent with a crippled presenter of television history shows. When the fit between the different elements is less than perfect, the wit, imagination and sheer theatricality of the writing papers over the cracks.
With The Habit of Art, it’s hard work. A theatre company is rehearsing a new play called Caliban’s Day which picks up a theme of W. H. Auden’s about giving a voice to the forgotten people. Much of this play consists of an imaginary dialogue between Auden and Benjamin Britten in 1973 which didn’t happen but certainly could have.
Two actors and the director are missing from the rehearsal. There is some rather obvious comedy of forgotten lines and amusing sound effects. Theatrical tantrums arise, with a playwright, Neil (Robert Mountford) who is a clear descendant of Roland Maule in Present Laughter. Then Donald (John Wark), playing Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of both men, begins objecting violently to the use of his character as a device and, in an attempt to illustrate Carpenter’s hinterland in music, appears in drag with a tuba to recite Douglas Byng’s ineffable Doris the Goddess of Wind – which at least scores highly on the camp-o-meter.
So we have a serious discussion of sex and art embedded in a play which is presented at times as being disastrously pretentious: Neil even has the furniture in Auden’s Oxford room speaking up as manifestations of the poet’s inspiration. The National Theatre threw the A Team of all A Teams at it on the first production in 2009 – Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour, Adrian Scarborough, with Nicholas Hytner directing – but it has not been revived since.
York Theatre Royal and the Original Theatre Company have grasped the nettle and, thanks to an excellent ensemble – rather smaller than at the National – and Philip Franks’ steady hand on the tiller, create an amusing, thought-provoking, rather uneven evening in the theatre.
Matthew Kelly is outstanding as Fitz, the fastidious veteran actor transformed, as far as his memory for lines allows, into the shambling and disgusting W.H. Auden, concerned only with the punctual arrival of rentboys and the “habit of art” by which he keeps writing, though no one is interested in his new work. David Yelland’s unobtrusive, drily amusing, Henry is transformed into the urbanely buttoned up Britten seeking reassurance that his new opera, Death in Venice, will not tell too many tales about his private life. Auden, typically, is convinced Britten wants him to write a new libretto and favours a refreshingly direct approach – forget the classical allusions, it’s all about the boys!
The little people, forgotten in all the biographies, are exemplified by rentboy Stuart, acted by Tim (Benjamin Chandler) with exemplary restraint, and the argument is whether he or Auden should have the last word. Rooting the whole thing in some sort of reality are two terrific performances by the stage management: Veronica Roberts (Kay), holding it all together, and Alexandra Guelff (George, her assistant), making the most of the gender switch from the original production to deliver a hilariously down-to-earth, and very butch, college servant.
Adrian Linford’s designs clutter the stage to great effect and Franks’ direction combines order and flexibility. The production does justice to the play; whether the play, as it exists, does justice to Bennett’s overflowing ideas is more debatable.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed