My friend John O’Brien has just seen The Habit Of Art at Richmond Theatre and here is his splendid review:-
The Habit of Art (2009) by Alan Bennett is a play about a play. Think of Velasquez’s great masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) for an analogy. The set shows a rehearsal space in a community hall with strip lighting and emergency exit doors with the metal horizontal push bars. Very drab and mundane and when the cast arrive for rehearsals are added to that, it all looks a bit like a hard work. But then Tim who plays Stuart (Benjamin Chandler) shouts out “are we doing the sucking off?” and you think blimey Bennett’s really let his hair down. You’d be right in thinking that because The Habit of Art is Alan Bennett in full flow. A lifetime of accumulated dramatic skill is let loose in this brilliantly witty, clever, but ultimately deeply moving piece about Life and Art.
As so often with great works of art, it was a near death experience which triggered The Habit of Art to come to fruition. In 1997 Bennett had undergone treatment for colorectal cancer and his surgeon removed a “rock-bun” sized tumour. He was given a 50% chance of survival, so when by 2005 he had been given the all clear, he decided to write plays about what really mattered to him. This was the context for The Habit of Art, an exploration of the relationship between homosexuality and the artistic life. The Habit of Art shows a group of actors rehearsing a play about the poet Wystan Hugh Auden (Matthew Kelly, wonderful) and the composer Benjamin Britten (David Yelland, superb). Bennett adds layers of complexity to the play, not just with the framing device of a play about rehearsing a play, but with the author Neil (Robert Mountford) who is on stage watching his play being staged and getting seriously upset in the process. If that isn’t complicated enough, the play features a biographer Humphrey Carpenter (John Wark) interviewing the actors and commenting as the play proceeds. I know this sounds tangled, but on stage it works brilliantly.
The play goes back and forth between the play being acted and then the rehearsal being interrupted as the actors and creatives (Veronica Roberts’ stage manager is wonderful) argue and bicker. In this way we, the audience, see multi-layered entanglements between art, life, biography, acting, writing, directing, tea breaks, toilet breaks and the need to leave to get to the next job as a TV voiceover for Nescafé (“does your coffee have a whiff of hacienda?) as Fitz aka Auden (Matthew Kelly) so wonderfully puts it at the end of the play. The action takes place in Auden’s rooms in Christchurch College, Oxford in 1971. By this time the most famous English poet of the 20th century is 64 year old and a shambolic figure, chain smoking, shuffling around in slippers and smelly because he pisses in the sink as he’s too lazy to walk to the bathroom. In one of the funniest scenes in the play, Auden, who is expecting an Oxford rent boy, Stuart but lets in instead Humphrey Carpenter the biographer. Auden instructs Humphrey to drop his trousers as he is going to suck him off. Astonished Humphrey replies “but I’m from the BBC and my dad is the Bishop of Oxford”. It is this insouciance that so typifies Bennett’s humour and unique brand of Englishness. High camp and low comedy. Noel Coward meets Joe Orton. Brilliant.
The heart of the play turns on the reunion of two great friends. Auden and Britten haven’t seen each other since falling out 40 years earlier in New York in 1941. Suffering from composer’s block, Britten needs help with his opera Death In Venice. He wants Auden (who he calls by his first name Wystan) to have a look at the libretto. Wystan is delighted. As he keeps reminding Britten, Thomas Mann was his father-in-law as he married his daughter Erica Mann so that she could get a British passport to escape Nazi Germany. “What are buggers for?” as Auden so wonderfully puts it. At this point in the play, the artistic and the real world clash. In the novella Death in Venice, a middle aged artist falls for a young boy. This could be read as Auden and Britten’s predicament. But in the room with them now and in Oxford (uncanny echoes here of Auden’s poem “Look Stranger At This Island Now”) is a real rent boy Stuart. Britten wants to disguise his feelings with classical references to Apollo but Auden won’t let him. “it’s boys you like,” he insists. Britten squeamishly equivocates. David Yelland has a wonderful tick of the face to express this and for me, this was one of the highlights of the evening, so subtle and yet so revealing. At this point Britten takes out a letter from his wallet that Auden had written him 40 years earlier in New York, accusing him of denial, homosexual denial that is. Forty years on and it seems nothing has changed. Britten leaves and Auden is left to spend the last two years of his life ambling around his rooms in Oxford. He died aged 66 in 1973.
But although that part of the play Caliban’s Day is over, our play The Habit of Art is not. Now we get to see the actors, stage manager and author reflect on and argue about what they have just performed. So we get a whole added layer of complexity. It makes for a fascinating evening. I wanted to see it all over again, I was so enthralled. For I have acquired The Habit of Art. One consequence of which is a compulsion to see things again and again.