Two plays by Alan Bennett in two days might at first glance seem a bit much. But with the imminent return to TV of his famous Talking Heads monologues (June 23rd) I can’t think of a better moment to immerse yourself in some of the writer’s other work. The current streaming opportunity from National Theatre At Home is The Madness Of George III (review here); also available is his 2009 play The Habit Of Art from the Original Theatre Company. And when they are as good as these two productions are then it is time well spent
The Habit Of Art is one of Bennett’s most layered plays and requires careful attention; fortunately, this is amply repaid. At one level this is a piece about a meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten after an estrangement of thirty years. Both highly regarded in their fields, the latter is writing a new opera based on Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice and has sought out Auden for some help. Auden thinks this means that he is being asked to write the libretto (he isn’t) but the two have clashing ideas about what it should all mean and they go their separate ways again. The man who wrote both their biographies, Humphrey Carpenter, is also involved and Stuart a rent boy engaged by Auden, adds a level of farcical misunderstanding to proceedings.
While this might be interesting just in itself, the layering adds extra dimensions. For the play described above is actually entitled Caliban’s Day which nestles neatly inside the main play, for we are at a rehearsal watching actors playing actors who are playing the roles. Thus Fitz, an irascible curmudgeon plays Auden while the rather more reticent Henry takes on Britten….and so on. The real scene, as it were, is therefore a rehearsal room in a dingy hall. The director and two of the actors are not available and so Stage Manager Kay and ASM George organise proceedings, keep the squabbling actors on task and fill in where necessary. Neil, the author of the rehearsed play, is also in attendance and that is a bit awkward as nobody has yet told him that some of his precious dialogue has been altered, restructured and even (shock horror) cut. And so as well as the conflict between the characters in Caliban’s Day we are simultaneously presented with the stresses and strains of a rehearsal as lines are forgotten, actors pause to question character details, props are unavailable and whole sections of the play need to be “worked on”. Even should you not know much or care about Auden and Britten there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from the production’s outer shell.
Matthew Kelly plays Fitz playing Auden and triumphs in both departments. Kelly economically suggests an actor and indeed a poet long past their prime and struggling to keep up with the changes in society. They are both slightly obsessed with time – Auden because he has to keep everything to a strict timetable including sexual gratification and Fitz because he needs to get away and do a coffee commercial voiceover. Both characters are loud and overbearing bullies and through his voice differentiation Kelly remarkably keeps the two quite distinct. Quite the opposite is David Yelland with his (that’s Henry’s and Britten’s) rather quieter intense demeanour, his buttoned-up posture and well-modulated tones. The long section at the start of Act 2 shows Yelland and Kelly in complete harmony as we learn the respective stories of both levels of their characters. It also amply demonstrates the old theatre adage that good casting is 80% of a successful production; there is no way that Fitz could be playing Britten nor Henry tackle Auden.
Carpenter’s character turns out to be a bit of a cipher but, cleverly, this is not bad writing on Bennett’s part. Rather it allows John Wark to hilariously focus on the massive insecurities of Donald, the actor who is playing Carpenter. Donald worries that he is just a theatrical device and indeed in the world of Caliban’s Day that is exactly what he is, although hotly denied by peacekeeper Kay who recognises that all actors are essentially children who need constant affirmation. In Veronica Roberts’ skilful hands, Kay also plays more than one role as she becomes a surrogate mother to all and sundry and occasionally gets to play minor parts in the play within the play. These might be best described as “experimental” as. in Neil’s conception of the play he has written, sometimes the furniture gets to speak. Robert Mountford as Neil does a nice line in repressed anger as he discovers how his play has been treated and shredded by the absentee director.
I think it is a clear mark of how clever this play of Bennett’s is and how skilful Philp Frank’s nuanced direction of it that, twelve hours after seeing it new thoughts and ideas are still occurring to me as I write. Indeed, this review is in imminent danger of becoming a full scale essay on the nature of plays and play making. When I saw this piece originally at the National Theatre, I felt that Bennett’s immediately previous work The History Boys cast a long shadow and was undoubtedly the highlight of his writing career. Now I’m not so sure; in fact, with its artful construction, soaring wit and its examination of pain at the heart of the creative process, The Habit Of Art may even be the better play. So, for the second day and the second Bennett in a row, highly recommended.
Production photos by Helen Maybanks
The Habit Of Art is available via the Original Theatre Company’s website (as a package alongside their production of Ali Milles’ The Croft) until the end of June. Click here
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