Your grandad was a sex worker in the 1970s and sucked off some of the greatest creative talent of the twentieth century. That’s just one of the hypotheticals played with in this revival of Alan Bennett’s wonderful 2009 play The Habit of Art.
Directed by Philip Franks, the central idea of the play is itself another hypothetical about two great talents in the twilights of their lives.
W H Auden, one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, and Benjamin Britten, a rare successful English opera composer, worked together in the early 1940s in New York, creating Britten’s first opera, Paul Bunyan.
Britten returned to England in 1942, but the two never met again, other than in the imagination of Bennett, who reunites them in the play in 1972.
Auden is in his drunken dotage, mixing up a radio interviewer with the rent boy he has ordered, constantly repeating himself, peeing in the kitchen sink and generally pushing one foot into the grave.
Britten has aged better, but is compelled to write an opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella Death In Venice, a cautionary tale of the foolishness an old man enters into when he falls in love with a fourteen year-old boy.
Britten fears the opera may reveal more about him than he would care to show and seeks guidance from Auden, a man he once was awed by. Time, however, changes everything.
The whole piece is framed as a play within a play, or rather a rehearsal within a play, creating an added layer of jokes about acting and the vicissitudes of the theatrical profession.
The complexity, honesty and ingenuity of Bennett’s writing is apparent throughout. It’s a faultless play, dealing with controversial material with the humour and humanity we expect from Bennett at his best.
The main cast are excellent. Matthew Kelly conjures W H Auden with uncanny precision, even down to his slipper-footed shuffle.
Auden speaks truth to everyone, but Kelly manages to underlay it with the deep inner sadness of a man unable to work creatively in the way that has defined his life.
David Yelland is a great foil, as a brittle, needy and self-hating Britten. And Veronica Roberts provides a gently moving coda as the Stage Manager in charge of the rehearsal, as well as delivering a couple of inspired comic turns in bit parts of supposedly absent actors.
Philip Franks has directed The Habit of Art with clarity and crispness allowing the script to shine. This fantatsic revival is a credit to Bennett. It finds new depths and nuances in the script and, at times, rivals the original production.
Words: Stephen M Hornby