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Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art at Richmond Theatre | Review

Matthew Kelly & Veronica Roberts in THE HABIT OF ART (c) Helen Maybanks
Matthew Kelly & Veronica Roberts in THE HABIT OF ART (c) Helen Maybanks

The two Alans, Ayckbourn and Bennett, are perhaps the only two living British playwrights who can be reasonably guaranteed to put bums on seats – at least in the regions. The former is 79 and the latter 84 and whilst the average age of their audiences is somewhat less their work is not designed to have youth appeal. That said the audience for Bennett’s The Habit of Art at Richmond Theatre had a sprinkling of young people dotted among those of more advanced years. This touring production is visiting thirteen venues across England having opened in York in September – it is a co-production of The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre Productions and is the first revival of the play since its original National Theatre run back in 2009.

Plays which rather incestuously feed on the world of the theatre were written by Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, John Osborne and many others, not to mention the Bard of Stratford. Theatre is artifice and illusion and when the audience sees it being made with the fourth wall open and the players playing themselves as well as their characters it is always intriguing. We are voyeurs seeing the performers (as in Osborne’s brilliant “The Entertainer”) in the raw. The masks are off. In “The Habit of Art” a production of a play within the play called “Caliban’s Day” is in rehearsal. This play is about a (fictitious) meeting between Poet WH Auden and Composer Benjamin Britten in 1972. Neil, the Author, is at the rehearsal and Bennett enjoys himself in portraying tensions between author and players – very true to life one suspects. The much older thesps challenge the poor author a lot about the meaning of lines and suggest cuts which compromise his creativity – or so he seems to convey. Fitz (who plays WH Auden) is particular cantankerous and Matthew Kelly, who is very good indeed in the role, is wonderfully authentic both as the grumpy actor and the infuriating Auden.

Auden, Britten and Bennett were or are all homosexual and whilst this does not make The Habit of Art a “Gay Play” it is crucial to the drama and the plot. Auden and Britten’s predilections were somewhat different – Auden enjoyed rough trade, Britten the celibate company of pre-pubescent boys. Both had long-term relationships that were like marriages and today probably would be. In his own circles, Auden was openly gay at a time when there were obvious risks. Britten was more repressed and trusted few outside of his close circle.

As Britten says to Auden in “Caliban’s Day” “You don’t believe in restraint. I do. I always have“. Auden is awaiting the arrival of a rent boy and initially mistakes a young man from the BBC for him! This young man is Humphrey Carpenter who was later to write biographies of both Auden and Britten but is here really used as a foil for some good jokes. He is a “device” – “a very good device”, as the ASM says, “because otherwise, they’d all be having to tell each other stuff they already know”. Here Bennett is deep into the challenges of writing a play which moves the story along without confusing or, worse, ignoring the audience. The “devices” (like a chorus) help do that. The language is spicy and would certainly have shocked Rattigan’s Aunt Edna – though the good burghers of Richmond took it in their stride:

Auden: Here we go. Take off your trousers.
Carpenter: What for?
Auden: What do you think? Come along, it’s half past.
Carpenter: What am I being asked to do?
Auden: You aren’t being asked to do anything. You’re being paid. This is a transaction. I am going to suck you off.
Carpenter: But I’m with the BBC.
Auden: Really? Well, that can’t be helped…

The jokes come thick and fast – this is Bennett at his most wicked and inventive. There are literary allusions galore and whilst it is all very “Luvvie” for this reviewer anyway none the worst for that. It may seem elitist to say it but this really is a play which can be enjoyed at many levels. As a literary tour de force it is exceptional and there is some subtly implied mockery of the literati who will pick up all the allusions. But in the end, the play’s the thing. And Kay, the assistant to the Director, sums that up:

Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten – but plays persistent. Plays, plays, plays. The habit of art.

So the theatre always entices because of the plays and the players. In this production of The Habit of Art justice is more than done to Alan Bennett’s play. It’s well staged and well-acted – a great cast. I mentioned Matthew Kelly’s terrific Fitz/Auden but David Yelland’s Henry/Britten is moving and point-perfect as well. Veronica Roberts (Director’s assistant) is also truly fine capturing the sometimes invidious roles of those who “also serve” brilliantly. A timely and worthwhile revival.

5 Star Rating

Review by Paddy Briggs

THE HABIT OF ART explores friendship, rivalry and heartache, the joy, pain and emotional cost of creativity. It is centered on a fictional meeting between poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Bennett wrote it as a play-within-a-play – actors Fitz, Henry, Tim and Donald are rehearsing a play called Caliban’s Day under the direction of stage manager, Kay, and in the presence of the playwright, Neil. In Caliban’s Day, a fictitious meeting occurs in 1973 in Auden’s (Fitz) rooms at Oxford not long before he dies. Britten (Henry) has been auditioning boys nearby for his opera Death in Venice, and arrives unexpectedly – their first meeting in 25 years after falling out over the failure of their opera Paul Bunyan.

Alan Bennett’s THE HABIT OF ART premiered at the National Theatre in November 2009, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tour. The National then toured the production in Autumn 2010 with a new cast led by Desmond Barrit, Malcolm Sinclair and Selina Cadell.

Alan Bennett’s THE HABIT OF ART directed by Philip Franks and starring Matthew Kelly as Fitz (W. H. Auden) and David Yelland as Henry (Benjamin Britten).

Veronica Roberts will be joining the cast in the role of Kay, the Stage Manager.
Robert Mountford plays the Author, Neil.
John Wark plays Donald (Humphrey Carpenter).
Alexandra Guelff plays the role of George, the Assistant Stage Manager.
Benjamin Chandler plays Tim (Stuart).

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Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including interval)
Suitable for 12+


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