‘The play holds up even better ten years on’: THE HABIT OF ART – Touring ★★★★

In Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews, Touring by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

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

rating four

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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