Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Philip Franks
Reviewer: Alice Fowler
Which is more powerful, music or words? The poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten debate this point in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art and, unsurprisingly, agree to differ.
Bennett stages an imagined meeting between the two great men in 1972, rekindling an old friendship at a point when both are less regarded than they once were. Matthew Kelly is magnificent as the crumpled Auden, ‘an odiferous poet with a face like his balls’, dwelling in squalor at an Oxford college. David Yelland convinces too as Britten: still dapper and outwardly successful, yet whose power base in Aldeburgh is slipping away, thanks to his fondness for young boys.
Bennett holds little back in his exploration of the sexual mores of north Oxford, with mentions aplenty of dicks and ‘sucking orf’, and memorable lines such as: ‘I’m not a rent boy, I was at Keble’. The action takes place as a play within a play. Great skill is needed to switch between the two and the whole company achieves this with aplomb.
The production is the first ever revival of Bennett’s play, first performed at the National Theatre in 2009, with the late Richard Griffiths as Auden. Under Philip Franks’ taut direction the play takes on fresh life, emerging fully from the shadow of its predecessor.
Humphrey Carpenter (John Wark), the biographer of both men, is also present, supposedly observing their conversation. Bennett being Bennett, things are far cleverer than this, with the actor playing Carpenter lamenting his position as a ‘device’ and attempting to steal the action. Benjamin Chandler plays Tim, a rent boy, whom Auden has summoned to his room. Bennett gives him a voice too, with an impassioned speech on boys like him who are ‘the fodder of art’ and whose voices are left out of history.
Mostly though this is Auden and Britten’s story, provokingly and movingly told. Only at the very end, when stage manager Kay (the excellent Veronica Roberts) turns out the lights, do we realise that her life is empty too. If loneliness is the epidemic of our age, this play explores it with tenderness and wit.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Contributed