As someone who lived in Leeds, home of Alan Bennett, for three wholesome years, my life has been bereft of this Northern national treasure... up until now. Back in London, The National Theatre gave me my first dose of Bennett with The Habit of Art. In this imagined meeting between composer Benjamin Britten and poet, W.H. Auden, the desires of the two men are explored and interrogated through a play within a play with the actors, Fitz and Henry, playing the two men, being paused and interrupted by the stage crew who add their own criticisms and reflections into the mix.
However, instead of feeling bewilderment at this multi-layered plot, like I did after watching the overrated film Inception, this play makes you feel like a child tucking into a sea of Woolworths (RIP) pick and mix selection, savouring each of the many delights that Bennett has lovingly prepared. The play’s metatheatre allow the audience to gently interrogate the creators of art- Britten, Auden and their biographer.
}This play makes you feel like a child tucking into a sea of Woolworths (RIP) pick and mix selection, savouring each of the many delights that Bennett has lovingly prepared~
The originality of this play derives from its use of humour and crudity to explore art, culture and theatre, preventing the play getting too bogged down by its potentially serious subject matter. Auden pisses in a basin in his room, talks irreverently of penises (or is it penii?) and is visited by a rent boy who seems confused when Auden wants to suck him off, not vice versa. As well as creating laughs these moments often contain moving and revealing ideas about art and its potential for destruction and exploitation. The rent boy, who plays an undeniable part in Auden’s life, is excluded from Auden’s biography, despite playing a role in his life. Meanwhile, Britten is criticised for putting himself into the role of victim in attributing his fascination with boys to Eros, god of love, when in reality he is in full control of his exploitative desires.
In this production, no one escapes ridicule- the pretentiousness of poetry is mocked through mock epic renditions of poems about the wrinkles on Auden’s face or the chair he sits on. Auden and Britten are interrupted by the actors who play them, their egos vying for a central role on stage. Donald (Matthew Cottle), who plays the biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, fears that he is a mere stage device, which leads him to don drag, Fitz wears a grotesque Auden mask and the cast bicker with the writer who is desperate to keep the acting to the script.
Despite its ability to garner attention purely by the ubiquity of its writer, the play could have self imploded with its multi-layered plot and its lack of clear chronological progression or resolution. However, it fails to fail because it is expertly written and wonderfully executed, producing something that is hilarious as well as moving. Desmond Barritt as Fitz/Auden is a massive presence on the stage, literally too, with his heavy plod across the stage and oversized cardigan. Malcolm Sinclair, is a perfect complement to Auden, playing the more reserved and tight-lipped Britten/Henry. The presence of a large supporting cast on stage is a constant reminder of the metatheatrical elements of the production and the intricate set, with its attention to detail, illuminates and captures the world of theatre- both behind the scenes and on stage.
The Habit of Art is on at the National Theatre until 21st September
Who is Alan Bennett?
-An actor, playwright, director, broadcaster who has worked on stage, television, radio and film.
-You might remember Talking Heads from GCSE Drama or English. These are a series of dramatic monologues which are often very comic but deal with issues like death, illness, guilt and isolation.
- Famous for The History Boys which was a hit both in UK theatres and Broadway as well as with critics, winning the Olivier Award in 2005 and the Tony Award in 2006. Set in a Grammar School in Sheffield, the play follows some history students preparing for the Oxbridge entrance examinations. The play was adapted into a film in 2006.
- Alan Bennet’s style is characterised by deadpan humour, with personalities who are often unfortunate and dejected..