Review – Habit of Art – National Theatre


Tonight J and I went to the National to see Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art. I’ve only ever seen one other play by Bennett (History Boys, of course), so can’t really say that I see him as an institution, but he’s got a keen ear for dialogue and can be very funny and New Play! Thus, I had to go, and for previews so I could get something approaching an affordable seat (though really £28 is above my normal, I was still quite seduced by the idea of seeing a New Play! and thus reason was overwhelmed by lust). I read nothing about it beforehand so that it could be entirely a surprise to me.

The setup is that we are backstage at some theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play about the day the composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) came to a very old WH Auden (Richard Griffiths) to talk to him about his new opera, Death in Venice, as told (sort of) from the point of view of Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), their biographer. We have a full set of actors doing the rehearsal (except for two who are missing “due to a Chekov matinee”), but also the musicians, a prompter, a stage manager, the author, and a few other folks. We listen to the actors debate the motivations (etc.) of the people they are depicting, to the author providing background detail, to the stage manager consoling people, and, of course, to the words of the play. It’s this play that is the core of Habit of Art, and while in part it’s a chance for Bennett to show two historical characters, it’s also a chance for him to explore the nature of creative collaboration.

My feeling on the “play”ness of this show was that it was a device that let him have some fun with a show that might have been a real slog if it was just Auden peeing in the sink and telling off his rent boy for not being timely enough. Instead, we got the comedy of the actors joking with each other, being teased for their mistakes, and generally being hams (especially Frances de la Tour in the role of the stage manager).

As it turned out, the “meat” I expected, the story of how art (in this case collaboration between artists) happens, never really materialized in act two. Instead, it was a chance for Britten and Auden to discourse on dealing with homosexuality, both in the act of creating art and in themselves. I found this rather unsatisfyingly inward looking and far less universal than the theme of art creation I was hoping for. It felt a bit like Bennett pursuing a subject that was of great interest to himself, much as (I felt it had to be) the lives and interactions of these two great (gay) men was. So, ultimately, I felt I was listening to a set piece in which Bennett replayed a conversation he had imagined, between two people he was interested in, but with various joking asides tossed in (courtesy of the show within a show device) to make it a more interesting on stage. It seemed like what might have happened with Fram if its author had actually cared about anyone wanting to watch it all the way to the end. Both had serious intellectual interests and deeply important things to discuss, but Bennett went for the mass appeal.

That said, I’m afraid this isn’t going to be mama’s little moneymaker like I think the National was hoping for. The run will probably sell out – it’s very much made to order for the folks who go to the National and even has a little paen to the venue at the very end – but it’s just too … I don’t know, introspective, navel gazing (and very much Alan Bennett’s navel), in spite of the heavy leavening of humor. So while I’m very happy to have been present at the birth of a play, I’m sad that this just wasn’t the “work of a lifetime” I was hoping for. Ah well, at least it was a good night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 9th, 2009. It continues through January 24th, 2010. Other reviews can be read at SansTaste’s weblog and elsewhere.)

One Response to “Review – Habit of Art – National Theatre”

  1. Review – The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett, National Theatre « West End Whingers Says:

    […] was a lot of head scratching among the Whingers entourage afterwards (Webcowgirl and Helen Smith among others) as to what exactly Bennett was getting at. Phil thought he might be […]

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