THE HABIT OF ART
by Alan Bennett.
Lyttelton Theatre Upper Ground South Bank SE1 9PX In rep to April 2010.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat 2.15pm
Audio-described 22 Jan, 23 Jan 2.15pm.
Captioned 13, 31 Jan.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS 020 7452 3000.
Review: Carole Woddis 25 November.
Making a play out of poetry and music.
Alongside Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Line, at the Arcola, examining differences in working lives and identity between male and female artist, Alan Bennett’s South Bank premiere relates to poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. You could say the contrast backs up Wertenbaker’s case about the artist as female. It is harder.
These plays share another similarity. In both you’ll find the line, `if I don’t work who am I?’. For Auden, for Britten, as for Edgar Degas (in The Line), it was the `habit of Art’ that gave them the sense of who they were.
Is the same true for Bennett? Certainly The Habit of Art sees him back on delicious form. Very funny, very Oxbridge, very naughty and who knows how autobiographical in its debates on the various vagaries of buggery and on his own intimidation – like Britten before Auden – of Jonathan Miller’s `verbal dexterity’ when they were working together on Beyond the Fringe.
Bennett even sets The Habit of Art as a play-within-a-play within the theatre’s own portals – in a backstage rehearsal room, giving him the perfect opportunity to indulge in a glorious parade of backstage jokerie, played to the hilt by Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tour as a wryly sympathetic stage manager.
But there is also serious comment afoot, on the respective superiorities of words or music, on Auden’s awful personal hygiene, on Britten’s tussle with his proclivity towards young boys, on the making of Death in Venice, his final opera. And on artists, eventually consigned to the pages of literary biography. There is another and important character, Humphrey Carpenter, who as acts as a bystander and who became the biographer of both Auden and Britten.
Elegant, erudite and mischievous, this is Bennett as celebrator and creator. More honest than The History Boys, it is finally a eulogy to plays, the making of plays, the actors who go in front of audiences night after night and with typical deprecation, to the ‘National’ itself could it but lose some of its pomposity.
Fitz (WH Auden): Richard Griffiths.
Henry (Benjamin Britten): Alex Jennings.
Donald (Humphrey Carpenter): Adrian Scarborough.
Tim (Stuart): Stephen Wight.
Charlie (Singer): Laurence Belcher/Otto Farrant/Toby Graham.
Brian: (originally Boyle): Philip Childs.
Neil (Author): Elliot Levey.
Kay (Stage Manager): Frances de la Tour.
George (Assistant Stage Manager): John Heffernan.
Joan (Chaperone): Barbara Kirby.
Matt (Sound): Danny Burns.
Ralph (Dresser): Martin Chamberlain.
Tom (Rehearsal Pianist): Tom Attwood.
Director: Nicholas Hytner.
Designer: Bob Crowley.
Lighting: Mark Henderson.
Sound: Paul Groothuis.
Music: Matthew Scott.
Company Voice work: Kate Godfrey.