Few first nights this year have been more eagerly awaited or filled with such expectation as Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. Bennett’s The History Boys, a palpable hit for the National Theatre, was a hard act to follow, and at the age of 75, one wondered how much dramatic gas Bennett had in the tank, and whether he was still capable of delivering the goods.
The answer is a massive affirmative. Bennett’s creative powers are as acute as they’ve always been, his wit just as sharp and his capacity to move an audience never stronger. With the possible exception of Tom Stoppard, he is the only contemporary dramatist whose work improves with age.
In The Habit of Art, which offers a Pirandellian-like play-within-a-play, the poet W.H. Auden (Richard Griffiths) and the composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings), are fictitiously brought together in 1972, a year before Auden’s death.
Though the pair had collaborated on several projects in the 1930’s, the brittle Britten had taken offence at remarks Auden had made about the composer’s relationship with the singer Peter Pears, and acrimoniously ended their friendship – as he had done and would continue to do with many of his other friends and colleagues.
The play-within-the play, called Caliban’s Day, is being rehearsed in one of the National Theatre’s rehearsal rooms. The director is elsewhere engaged that day, and Kay (Frances de la Tour), the stage manager, has ordered a run through. So, initially, what we’re being presented with is a play about putting on a play. We see how fearful actors are with untried material, how they interrupt rehearsals to question lines and characterisations, often randomly cutting the text much to the chagrin of the long-suffering playwright.
The setting of Caliban’s Day is Auden’s rather squalid digs (courtesy of designer Bob Crowly) at Christ Church, Oxford, where, after he had become an American citizen in 1946, he returned as a verbose old bore, still scribbling away and as useful to the faculty as a sixth finger.
When we first meet him he has just confused the broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter who has come to interview him for Radio Oxford, for a rent boy he’s been hoping to fellate. His next visitor is the rent boy himself, followed by Benjamin Britten, who’s clutching the score of a work in progress, his new opera Death in Venice.
Though it has been over 20 years since the two men met, Britten is concerned that the opera’s subject – the obsession of an older man for a beautiful young boy – is too close to his own fondness for boys (though he never ever molested them), and that it might cause tongues to wag. He also has concerns over the quality of the libretto by his friend Myfanwy Piper.
Auden, who at this late stage in his life longs to be involved in a meaningful project, hopes Britten will ask him to take over the composition of the libretto. But all Briiten wants is advice.
Also present throughout the playwithin- the play, is Carpenter, who went on to write definitive biographies of both men, and who here serves as a kind of chorus probing and commenting on the action. If this structure sounds complicated, it isn’t at all, and the play – which is both about the collaborative creative process in the theatre and the more personal process of writing poetry and music – artfully and fascinatingly moves from the one to the other.
The toll taken by old age on the creative process is another vital element, as is the nature of biography, and what purpose, if any, it serves. The point is made that no matter how accomplished a biography might be, it is still secondary to the subject being written about.
Though most of the time Bennett brilliantly juggles all these elements, there is the occasional misfire. It is hard to believe, for example, that the writer (played with an agonised weariness by Elliot Levey) capable of writing the superb scenes between Auden and Britten, would also write risibly parodic dialogue in rhyming couplets for inanimate objects such as Auden’s door, his chair, his clock and even his craggy wrinkles. They belong in a different play and serve as little more than a device to garner a few unnecessary laughs.
Another device that struck me as mere contrivance was having Auden ask Britten (clearly for the benefit of the less well-informed members of the audience) to remind him what happens in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, when it is perfectly obvious he knows every detail of the plot intimately. Nor was I convinced by the arbitrary moments of forgetfulness and repetition with which Auden is suddenly inflicted in his scenes with Britten, as there was little, if any evidence of this condition before.
Mere quibbles, though, far outweighed by the general excellence of the writing, by Nicholas Hytner’s seamless, unobtrusive direction, and by the fine performances.
Richard Griffiths, though nowhere resembling W.H. Auden, is wonderfully irascible and deeply moving as the spent poet who, even in old age cannot quit the habit of art, Alex Jennings as the prissy, more punctilious, envious and unsure of himself Britten (how tellingly he spits out the name of his rival Tippett) is excellent, as is Adrian Scarborough as Humphrey Carpenter. All three play dual roles, the insecure actors rehearsing Caliban’s Day, and the characters they portray in it.
There’s a lovely performance too, from Frances de la Tour as Kay, the efficient, conciliatory seen-it-all-before stage manager, and from Stephen Wight playing the rent boy Stuart.
Towards the end of the play Bennett gives Stuart a speech which makes the point that, in writing about the lives of the great and the good, bit players like Stuart, who are usually little more than a footnote to their lives, deserve recognition too.
Bennett, however, ends this richly textured, multi-faceted, hugely entertaining play with a speech by Kay on the fear that actors feel in their jobs (during rehearsals of Caliban’s Day the author remarks ‘Plays don’t so much go into production, as into intensive care’), of the importance of plays in general and the National Theatre in particular.
Amen to that.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.