Wednesday 5th September 2018 at York Theatre Royal.
Is literature always written with some level of honesty and sincerity or is it by its very nature a study of artifice? In The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett takes on both this probing question and the notion of being someone of such great success that they are absolutely certain to leave a lasting legacy – a ‘national treasure’. The play examines the aftermath of reaching the highest heights of success in your respective field; what of that once ordinary person sitting atop that pedestal? What happens when their contemporaries catch up and supercede? For how long will they be in demand before they are put aside as an icon dusty and unlooked to? And what’s more, what happens when we start digging and create a narrative centred on ‘great’ men held in high regard only to uncover their vices, their insecurities, their melancholy and their fragility? Will they topple from that pedestal or will their work withstand the context of their creation? It’s this sort of pontificating which gives Bennett’s play much of its comedy – front and centre are these futile existential contemplations and ‘the artist’s’ reputation for entertainingly weird and wonderful means of communicating a point.It’s a clever play-within-a-play set-up from Bennett: a group of try-hard actors are cooped up in a rehearsal space which Adrian Linford’s set design delivers in cluttered accuracy. The exasperated writer Neil (Robert Mountford) clutches his face in horror as this picky group question and toy with his work. He leans heavily on Alexandra Guelff’s George and Veronica Roberts’ Kay to placate and pacify the sensitive men in the cast, never quite realising that their job is to mollycoddle him as a temperamental artist just as much – a subtle duality raising significant laughs throughout. Both Guelff and Roberts are brilliant in their take on the long-suffering creatives behind the faces of a show – they’re all patience and side-eye with some great little cameos as they stand in for missing actors. This small scale cast dream of the heights reached by the subjects of their play: the composer Benjamin Britten and poet W.H. Auden. The pair were once close friends but having lost touch, we see an ageing Auden in a rather grim domestic setting, with no company and nothing to do. His ‘partner’ is away and the wife he married for convenience has died. Interestingly, while Britten omits the true role of his ‘life partner’, Auden discusses the shifting attitudes towards ‘men like them’ so freely that Britten is left searching for words to explain away his complete reluctance to make this particular part of his private life public knowledge. Bennett leaves no stone unturned when considering the influences on artists. The Auden we’re seeing aired in a rehearsal writes still, but no one asks him to do so. He lives like a slob and even his gentlemen caller Tim (Benjamin Chandler) who services the local masses can’t fathom how a man of such reputation can live like such a cockroach. It’s certainly a pessimistic view of reaching the top of the professional mountain but for all the bleakness, in true Bennett style, the script is filled with witty observations and comical turns of phrase. What’s particularly interesting to watch as the play progresses is how much the actors root for their characters. Some do this for their own gain in terms of inspiring praise for their performance, as is the case with Donald (John Wark) who plays the comically intrusive biographer of Auden and Britten; so eager is he to ‘find’ his character and do justice to the man he depicts that he goes to great lengths to demonstrate for us the all-round irrelevant characteristics of his minor character. Others seem more noble in their protestations – Fitz (a cantankerous, principled and ironic performance from Matthew Kelly) in particular is something of a protector for his character Auden – when the writer zooms in on Auden’s wackiness, flaws or bawdiness, he sees it as a disservice and lets everybody know it. Henry, who plays Britten (played by David Yelland as a classic critical Eton type – well spoken, well educated and entitled) blurs the lines between fact and fiction as his anecdotes designed to clarify the playwright’s choices raise significant suspicions about himself… All of these characters and their respective characters hunkering down in a small room to hash out a rehearsal provides us with a display of ‘the process’ of creating art, complete with frictions, crises in confidence, bickering and finally, resentfully pushing on through with the damn thing…While both Auden and Britten’s successes are certainly acknowledged and praised to an extent, the men are indulgent and squander their success – Auden on rent boys and whinging, Britten on surrounding himself with flattery while lusting after choir boys. It’s unclear as to what extent the play humanises or dehumanises two untouchable towering figures in the arts. Composers fare better than poets which perhaps is predictable – Bennett seems to bask in the irony of having us consider whether Auden’s comments on the poet and their work are Bennett’s own views as the playwright. We’re always playing match-up with writers and their work and this play asks us to consider whether the art can stand alone without its creator and their influences. There are many intellectual in-jokes and it has to be said that Bennett appears to expect his audiences to be well read but regardless, under the direction of Philip Franks, this seven strong cast keep pace with Bennett’s quick-firing wisdoms and quips. Despite a few lulls and notable dips in momentum to allow for some of the more melancholic moments of reflection, this is a lovely take on one of Bennett’s most philosophical works. Ever wondered how art is inspired, made, questioned, mangled, crucified, resurrected and presented to the masses? Buy a ticket!
The Habit Of Art is presented by York Theatre Royal, The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Productions. It plays at York Theatre Royal until September 8th 2018 and you can find tickets here.