Theatre review: The Habit Of Art

Posted on: 02 December 2009 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Alan Bennett’s eagerly awaited new play The Habit Of Art at the National Theatre.

A meditation on the ability of art and biography to give shape to a life is provided by Alan Bennett in his eagerly awaited new play The Habit Of Art (Nt’s Lyttleton auditorium), directed by Nicholas Hytner.

The setting is a National Theatre rehearsal room where a group of actors are preparing a new play about a meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in the former’s squalid Oxford study in 1972. Britten, seeks advice from his former collaborator and friend, W.H. Auden. During this imagined meeting, their first for 25-years, they are observed and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer and a young man from the local bus station.

Bennett cleverly fuses politics, philosophy and comedy into this meeting of one of the 20th century’s leading poets and one of its leading composers. Yet this work is as much about the theatre as it is about poetry or music, in particular the relationship between actors, their material and the audience, as it weaves in and out of the various layers of fictional reality. The play looks at the unsettling desires of two difficult men, and at the ethics of biography, while at the same time reflecting on growing old, creativity and inspiration, and on persisting when all passion’s spent.

Yet, although this is certainly an enjoyable work, it is also a lightweight one, while much of the comedy is rather crude and stems from luxurious theatre jokes. There are, however, some deliciously witty one-liners such as when Auden, mistaking his proposed biographer for a rent boy, asks him to take down his trousers, to which request the startled visitors replies, ‘But I’m with the BBC!’, as well as some fascinating insights such as when Auden, in justifying his profession, remarks ‘Poets give voice to the inarticulate universe’.

Hytner draws first rate performances from his two leading actors - Richard Griffiths as the recalcitrant actor Fitz and Auden, a poet with a passion for rent boys, and Alex Jennings as both the starchy Britten and the Oxford college servant unsettled by Auden’s personal habits. Strong support is provided by Francis de la Tour as the tenacious stage manager and Adrian Scarborough as the man who became the biographer of both men.

You can’t help feeling that if these two men had actually met in real life this is how it would have been!

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Lyttleton auditorium

When: Plays in repertory until 6 April 2010

Box Office: 020 7452 3000

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