Touring – reviewed at York Theatre Royal
Onstage is a shabby rehearsal room, an Oxford study scruffily indicated with doorframes and signs; at the side a litter of coffee-cups and props. Neil, a nervy and easily offended playwright, sits in while the company stage manager Kay supervises a rehearsal of his new work: in which WH Auden is fictionally visited in 1972 by Benjamin Britten, while the young Radio Oxford reporter Humphrey Carpenter is mistaken for the rent-boy Auden booked.
The actors are costive and restless, the director has cut lines the author cherished. They are all in the mind of Alan Bennett: so here we have an artist, writing about an artist writing about artists, while manoeuvring around the irritabilities of the performing artists who are his tools. It is about human friction, sexuality, old age and fractured friendship and the impertinence of biography. And above all, about the need to go on making: the habit of art. “Are you still writing?” asks Carpenter. “Am I dead?” replies Auden, surprised…
It is nine years since Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre opened Bennett’s fascinating play: high time we had it back, and this York-led collaboration does it proud. There are lines I had forgotten and others (memory suggests) which must have been cut by Hytner and are reinstated here in Philip Franks’ production. Importantly, at its heart the two great men – fictionally meeting in Oxford in 1972, both not far from their deaths – are superbly rendered by Matthew Kelly as the veteran “Fitz” who becomes Auden, and David Yelland as the more restrained Henry who is being Britten.
Kelly’s Auden is rubicund and scruffy, sexually and reputationally reckless but a great and open heart, pining for his ever-unfaithful partner Chester. Yelland gives Britten all his precise, tweedy nervousness and buttoned-down, closeted yearning for boyish beauty and innocence. In the second act, as he agonises over how embarrassingly close-to-home is that theme in his opera Death In Venice, Auden challenges him to admit and even celebrate those adorations. “Why are you still sending out messages in code?”
If that makes anyone uncomfortable in the age of heightened awareness of paedophilia, it is meant to. Impossible and forbidden loves are part of many lives, and of literature down the ages. And as Britten says, he plays with his adored boy sopranos only in a musical sense . “I don’t prey on them..I attend to them. I listen”. The discomfort, unhappiness, confusion is all there. Auden longs to take over writing the libretto for Britten, serving the music which will express all these yearning impossibilities. Britten is wary, closeted, but also lonely for the sensible adult love of Peter Pears who is in Canada.
In some ways you sense Bennett – long silent about his own loves, but around this time having become more open, partnered and happy – debating with himself which kind of gay man to be. But that is small compared to the greater theme of creativity and its parasites: the itch to work and make new things , the habit of art, the ruthless following of dangerous tracks and the danger of become a national treasure. Auden is funny about being considered an “oracle” and endlessly repeating himself, rather like Larkin who complained about “pretending to be me”. And he jeeringly asks Britten about his adoring Aldeburgh – “do they call you Maestro?”.
It’s sharp, and often funny, teasing and important. And from Bennett – who has written enough diaries to be a biographer of his own life better than any other will ever be – there’s a nice swipe at how biographers simply “hitch a lift” on others’ achievement and rather look forward to the subject’s death because that will tie it all up nicely. The play holds up, even better, ten years on.
Just a note on the Humphrey Carpenter character: we were colleagues years ago, indeed around th time the play is set. It is Bennett’s fictional dramatist (Robert Mountford nicely fretful as Neil) and not Bennett himself who traduces him: Humf was a lot sharper, funnier and less of a blundering clown than in the play . But in one of those often unwise actor-interviews in the programme, Matthew Kelly traduces him further by gaily saying that Carpenter was a “great musician” but with shocking inaccuracy “knows b+++ all about literature” , and that his Auden book looked boring “500 pages of “tiniest print” so he didn’t bother to read it. O, why do good actors do these dangerous chats? Why do programmes print them? But it’s a fine production.
Box office: 01904 623568 to 8 Sept then yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
Then touring: www.originaltheatre.com to 1 Dec