THE playfulness of the pizzicato from Britten’s youthful Simple Symphony welcomes us into a rehearsal room in a shabby church hall, setting the tone for this excellent revival of Alan Bennett’s 2009 play The Habit of Art.
It’s the first time that the play has been staged since its National Theatre premiere run. One possible reason for its absence may be that to make the complex writing work properly requires a very strong cast. Fortunately, the Original Theatre Company and Director Philip Franks have assembled a uniformly outstanding group of actors, who navigate their way through Bennett’s jungle of wordplay with extraordinary skill.
If metatheatre were an Olympic sport, Bennett would have certainly been in podium position with this piece of writing. The actors play actors who are rehearsing a new play about a fictional meeting between two national treasures, W H Auden and Benjamin Britten. The director is stuck in another city and two of the actors aren’t available either, so they make do with stage managers Kay and George reading the parts of the absentees. All this happens on a day when the play’s author, Neil, turns up to witness the rehearsal.
Neil becomes incensed when he discovers that the director, who’s not here to explain himself, has cut parts of the text that he feels are essential to making sense of its ending. He’s also worried that Fitz, who plays Auden, seems unable to remember his lines.
In the play, which is called Caliban’s Day, Auden receives three visitors. Benjamin Britten is the last of these to arrive, being preceded by Humphrey Carpenter (who actually was to become the biographer of both poet and composer) and by Stuart, a rent boy who Auden has called upon the services of. Fitz becomes increasingly frustrated that his part doesn’t give due deference to the greatness of Auden, worrying that the excessive talk of his sexual peccadilloes only serves to demean the man. Neil however insists that it’s all got sound foundation in Auden’s letters, and that, at any rate, the play is as much about ‘the boy’, who is the Caliban of the title.
Donald, who plays Humprey Carpenter, also becomes frustrated because he feels that his part is nothing more than a device, and he strives to build up the role. He suggests that there’s something musical he might try later, but turning up after the interval in drag playing a tuba isn’t what anyone expected, least of all the long-suffering author.
Tim, who plays Stuart, seems less frustrated than his character, who becomes so fed up waiting for the moment when he can actually get down to his business that he actually suggests he might earn his money by tidying up a bit.
Britten occupies a platform to the rear of the stage until he appears at Auden’s home, occasionally playing the piano to accompany the boys he’s auditioning, each of them rather beautifully sung by Alexandra Guelff. His visit comes as a surprise – possibly a shock – to Auden, who has not set eyes on him for decades. Britten is writing what is to become his final opera, a setting of Death in Venice, based on the novella by Auden’s father-in-law Thomas Mann. He is worried that the subject matter of the piece, in which an elderly composer is seduced by a beautiful young boy, may be considered too risky, and he is seeking the advice of his old collaborator. Auden gets the wrong end of the stick, thinking that Britten wants him to write the adaptation for him, and here is the heart of it. In a comedy of misunderstandings, it’s the fear of rejection on all sides that provides the play’s emotional weight.
It’s in the lengthy exchanges between two great artists that the meat of the piece lies, and they provide the vehicle for the bulk of the verbal sparring. True, it helps if the viewer is au-fait with the background of the material, and anyone unfamiliar with the history of the two men and their work may fail to pick up on some of the humour. Nonetheless, the skill of both the writing and its delivery here make for a master class in acting.
Matthew Kelly is mesmerising to watch in his rendering of Fitz / Auden. The shambling figure of him in his tattered old cardigan looms ponderously in almost every scene. David Yelland’s avuncular Britten perfectly balances the Yin and Yang of the piece with his troubled charm. John Wark makes fine work of Donald, whose efforts to make more dramatic mileage out of Humphrey Carpenter constantly fall on the deaf ears of the perplexed playwright, played with manic confusion by Robert Mountford.
Benjamin Chandler would seem to have been dealt a tricky hand as Tim, who plays the rent boy, the wrong side of 25 to wear the description. But it’s a great performance that he gives and his protestation that, while Auden will always be a poet, he won’t be plying this trade forever lifts the nature of their strange transactions to something quite philosophical.
Alexandra Guelff has impeccable energy and timing as George, and Veronica Roberts keeps a tight rein on everything in a powerhouse performance. As she turns out the lights to the strains of Britten’s Dawn from Peter Grimes, you certainly get the feeling that she has been in charge all along.
The Habit of Art is a multi-layered piece of writing which may confuse or even maybe shock some audiences expecting the familiar cosiness of Bennett, but in this finely crafted and beautifully performed production it deserves its packed houses. It continues its tour at Cambridge, Coventry, Salford, Southend and Malvern, with dates to 1st December.