Friday, 22 January 2010

The Habit Of Art

Alan Bennett's latest play is sold out for its current run. In itself this isn't particularly surprising. Always a 'national treasure', Bennett has had a hit in recent memory with his previous The History Boys. However, the subject of the current The Habit Of Art is by no means calculated to milk his burgeoning profile, concerned as it is with two celebrated but nonetheless esoteric figures in British cultural life - the poet Wystan Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten - and the nature of their homosexuality.

The Habit Of Art is a play within a play (as Bennett himself suggests, this form emerged of its own accord in trying to accomodate the textual observations of the director, Nicholas Hytner). In fact, the play has a third outer Russian Doll, as the National Theatre itself is clearly demarcated as the place in which the play is set, its ghosts permeating not only the text but also the play's function.

Hytner manages the osmotic toing-and-froing between the rehearsal and the play well, using a single, immobile set within the barely furnished bounds of the Lyttleton stage. The cast also move between their characters with great fluency, lubricated with in- and out-of-role accents.

Richard Griffiths as Auden is at the centre of the play. I had been told that it was a play concerning Britten but naturally, for a man of letters such as Bennett, prima le parole, dopo la musica. Alex Jennings plays Britten - technically the stand-out performance of the evening - and Frances de la Tour completes the triangular base on which the play is built (Adrian Scarborough plays Humphrey Carpenter within the play, the third real figure from which the fiction is grown but, as his own character sulkily concedes, he is really just a device). A smattering of competent younger actors play the attendant parts either side of the on-stage fourth wall. It's a very funny, occasionally smutty play although beset with self-consciousnesses, like bald patches in old clothing. The great central set-piece grows out of a conversation concerning Britten's final opera Death In Venice, although the play does nothing to shed any new light on this work. I struggled to equate the play with its payoff - that in all art someone always gets left out 'every, every time'. Hey, maybe this time it was me.

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