“I want to hear about the failings of great men”
The Habit of Art is Alan Bennett’s first new play since the juggernaut that was The History Boys and is his fifth for the National Theatre in total. Having sold out its first run in a matter of weeks, this world premiere has been eagerly anticipated, despite the late withdrawal of one of its main stars, Michael Gambon, due to minor ill health.
The premise of this play is around an imagined meeting between old friends Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) and W.H. Auden (Richard Griffiths taking over from Gambon) as Britten is seeking advice and reassurance about his new opera, Death in Venice. However, this is not all Bennett wants to talk about, so he uses the framing device of us being backstage at a theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play about this meeting, as witnessed by Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), a man who was later to write biographies about both of them. Thus the stage is set for an examination of the creative process of collaboration, whether between these two legendary figures or between the acting company representing them.
This set up allows Bennett to insert much of his trademark humour, especially with Frances De La Tour’s long-suffering stage manager (the look on her face as she begins “I am a mirror…” is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time), as we witness the company at work, dissecting the play whilst rehearsing it, debating the writing with the author, questioning the actions of the characters, and generally hamming it up. There was a moment of magic for me about two thirds of the way through the first half, when all of this fannying about is dropped, and we witness the reunion of Britten and Auden, and the scene is just played straight: Griffiths and Jennings captivated me entirely in this scene and I felt the whole play coming together, and when they broke for their interval (and indeed our interval), I desperately wanted them to continue. Unfortunately, the play never recaptured this intensity of feeling for me, as the scenes in the second half were regularly interrupted with the actors slipping in and out of character and joking, which was a shame as I felt it kept the audience at arms length from what I had thought would be the key emotional relationship of the piece.
Instead of looking at the collaboration around art, Bennett is much more preoccupied with analysing Auden’s and Britten’s homosexuality and the effect this had on their work. The result is something which ends up feeling quite fitting into Bennett’s oeuvre, but yet ultimately not wholly engaging as nothing new is uncovered and what we do know is simply reiterated, for example Britten’s predilections for younger boys is touched on but not examined. Alex Jennings in particular deserves praise for his excellent portrayal of Britten and Henry the actor playing him, and whilst Richard Griffiths was by no means bad, but I did rather feel I had seen much of this performance elsewhere, there wasn’t much new brought to the table though he wasn’t helped by playing such an irascible character. The wider discussion around the nature of reputations and theatre suffered the same fate since we had no emotional engagement, the final speech in particular being insufferably self-referential.
Adrian Scarborough is criminally underused here: what he does have he uses very well, but there is no depth to his character which given Carpenter’s actual exploits seems a little harsh. I was pleased to see John Heffernan onstage again, after loving him in Carrie’s War, and his scenes with Frances De La Tour as the talking props and words and music were excellently executed. And I also enjoyed the sharply suited Elliott Levey as the play’s author, even if it does feel like he pops up in a large proportion of the National Theatre’s productions!
One mildly annoying factor for me was the audience’s eagerness to laugh loudly at every single hint of a funny line. For sure, the writing in the first half was largely amusing, but it was mainly chucklesome, yet people were practically rolling in the aisles: one gets the feeling you could have just said “Alan Bennett” and they’d’ve been laughing their heads off…
In the final analysis, this is a good play which is acted well, but it is a very cerebral play and looking back on it, I don’t know how much I felt I actually learned from it. I did enjoy The Habit of Art, but perhaps I should have managed my expectations better.