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The Habit of Art

by on 16 October 2018

Pandora’s Box Opened by Apollo

The Habit of Art

by Alan Bennett

The Original Theatre Company with York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre productions 

at Richmond Theatre until 20th October, then on tour until 1st December

Review by Mark Aspen

“Why does a play have to be such a performance?” asks Neil, the exasperated playwright of the play-within-the-play in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. This triggered an interval discussion around whether Bennett is at his best with simplicity (like his character studies in Talking Heads) or in his undeniably clever, complex pieces, of which The Habit of Art is probably his most complex.

On reflexion, the answer to this question lies in the performance rather than the play. Original Theatre’s touring production of The Habit of Art, which has just touched down at Richmond Theatre this week, is remarkably good at unravelling these complexities by, amongst other things, simply the brilliant acting across the full cast. For real actors in a play to play fictional actors in a fictional play-within-a-play about real characters in a fictional situation (I hope you are keeping up) requires concentrated acting that differentiates between each without losing fluidity and intent. Director Philip Franks has done a superb job in balancing the talents of his well-chosen cast. Moreover the play deals with awkwardly delicate issues which are handled with a sensitivity that is lightened by the legendary Bennett wit.

Habit 8

The theme revolves around another man of letters, well-known for his wit, W.H. Auden, who is a real character in Caliban’s Day, the fictional play within The Habit of Art. Caliban’s Day imagines a day in 1972 when Auden, having just taken up a sinecure at Christ Church, his alma mater in Oxford, has a number of visitors, including Benjamin Britten, whom Auden had not seen since he had left the USA in 1942, where they fled as conscientious objectors at the beginning of the war; and Humphrey Carpenter, who was to become a distinguished biographer, including of both these men. The Habit of Art is set in a parish hall in 2009, where a group of professional actors is rehearsing Caliban’s Day under the supervision of Kay, the stage manager, in the director’s absence. The author of play, Neil, also turns up. Without directorial guidance, all take the opportunity to question the play, its presentation and their roles in it.

What could be metatheatre for its own sake, is used in a series of interwoven didactic explorations of the nature of theatre, of reality versus imagination, of sexuality, of politics, and, as the title suggests, of the purpose of art. Bennett also makes it a gentle lampoon of actors, theatre practice, and (perhaps self-deprecatingly) playwrights.

Habit 2

Designer Adrian Linford, with lighting designer Joanna Town, creates a precisely all-embracing setting for the rehearsal space. An untidy clutter of theatre accoutrements and rehearsal props in a recognisably tired church hall. With the Victorian meatiness of its heavy porch, roof beam corbels and wainscoting now disappearing under thick green paint, and a harsh addition of fluorescent strip-lighting, you could almost smell the dampness.

Habit 12

Dampness is an appropriate setting Auden in his Oxford rooms (once the college Brewhouse), who is prematurely senile, particularly in his hygiene, but not in his sexual practices. His untidiness, incontinence and toilet short cuts makes for a sordid ambience, which is compounded by his frankly admitted promiscuous homosexual dalliances, for which his lust is still strong. However, the explicitness of all this is hair-curling, and Fitz, the actor playing Auden thinks it demeans the character. “He is not coarse” says Fitz and the wider realisation of his character does indeed concentrate on the sharpness of his mind, his mobile facetiousness and his comprehension. The Auden depicted is also an obsessive. He obsesses about time and timekeeping, about his fear of aging, although “oracles repeat themselves”, and above all about the art of writing, which has become a life-sustaining habit … and he does repeat about “the habit of art”. Matthew Kelly, in this definitive role, not only is the essence of Auden (and even looks like a taller Auden), but typifies the old-school actor that is Fitz. The two are subtly but clearly differentiated down to the body language: the physically weary Auden shuffling in his carpet slippers and urine-stained trousers, and the world-weary Fitz, doing the job, the sparkle returning at the thought of his next part, a supermarket ad voice-over.

Habit 4

Equally another widely experienced actor, David Yelland, extracts the quintessence of Benjamin Britten from the character played by the actor Henry. The verisimilitude of Henry’s portrayal of Britten’s urbanity and his covert sexuality, discretely exposed in the presence of his one-time friend Auden, are accurately put across by Yelland. Just as we realise that Britten’s perversions extend to paederasty with his would-be choir boys, we also realise that Henry’s account of someone he knew, who became a part-time rent-boy to pay his way through RADA, is in fact Henry himself.

John Wark gives a strong and well-studied portrait of the third real-life character Humphrey Carpenter as played by Donald, an earnest new actor in Caliban’s Day. Carpenter, was not only a prolific biographer, but was instrumental in the development of The Third Programme (now BBC Radio 3). Son of a Bishop of Oxford, he was Oxford personified. In Caliban’s Day, Carpenter remains always in the background as a de-facto narrator, a theatrical conceit that Donald is keen to expand. He demonstrates his idea, an idea received by the rest of the company with a mixture of amusement and bemusement: he enters as the Goddess of the Wind (pronounced wine-ed), playing a tuba … in drag. The Richmond audience loved it (and Wark too clearly enjoyed the diversion).

Habit 04

Donald is merely trying to catch the drift of Neil, the playwright, who is besotted with theatrical conceits in all their forms. Inter alia, he is experimenting with making pieces of Auden’s furniture animate in order to give the play more depth. Fitz is distinctly unimpressed, as are the stage crew, who are reading in for absent actors but dutifully don the cardboard cut-outs of the dancing fixtures and fittings. As the overbearing hyper-precious playwright, Robert Mountford fairly bristles in the role of Neil, as he treats all the actors with supercilious distain, “chimpanzees trying to repair the watch”. Bennett’s spoof of Neil is as the ultimate intertextual plagiariser. So, pretentiously, we have as allegories of Auden and Britten: Phaedrus and Socrates, Dionysus and Apollo, von Aschenbach and Tadzio etc etc. The last pair from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is perhaps the most pertinent, as Auden in fact married Mann’s daughter (an unconsummated marriage arranged to get her out of Nazi Germany) but Auden did not write the libretto for Britten’s opera Death in Venice that is mooted in this Neil’s play. (Also I believe Mann based von Aschenbach on Gustave Mahler.)

Habit 10

Cutting through all this bullshit is Kay, Caliban’s Day’s stage manager, pragmatic, astute and focussed, everything a stage manager needs to be. She has been there, seen that and has a full wardrobe of proverbial tee-shirts. Veronica Roberts is outstanding in this role and is strongly supported by Alexandra Guelff in the role of George, the Assistant Stage Manager. (Guelff also has a great singing voice, her character standing in for Britten’s boy trebles and taking her soprano into this range in lovely traditional songs like The Ash Grove – in musical arrangements by Max Pappenheim.) Between them Roberts and Guelff are stage management embodied, as anyone who has ever worked in the theatre will testify.

The title of the fictitious play, Caliban’s Day, is, as Neil tries to explain, based on Auden’s poem, The Sea and the Mirror, which alludes to The Tempest and has, in its final long section, Caliban addressing the audience in lieu of Shakespeare. Symbolically, Caliban is the rent-boy, Stuart, who is one of the visitors that day in Auden’s rooms, and is perfunctorily used by Auden. As such, he is seen as one of unrecorded masses who impinge on the lives of the famous, but are marginalised when posterity apportions their biographies. Benjamin Chandler in this role has the deference of the newcomer actor Tim and the self-assurance of Stuart, the rent-boy whom he plays, a difficult role acted well.

Britten may say of a boy that “he was an Apollo, I seduced by his beauty”, but Auden’s reply that “it was not corruption but collaboration” opens a veritable Pandora’s Box. The Habit of Art may, like the actors, question the play, its presentation and their roles in it, but what Bennett’s metatheatre is really questioning is life, its presentation and all our roles in it.

Mark Aspen
October 2018

Photography by Helen Maybanks

From → Drama, Reviews

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