The Habit of Art, National Theatre, December 2009

This new play by Alan Bennett shows actors rehearsing a new play about W.H.Auden. The key scene is when Benjamin Britten arrives to consult Auden about his forthcoming opera Death in Venice.  That places the action in 1972, since the opera was first produced in 1973 — I remember it well. It also provides a focus for the homosexuality that is a key element in this drama. Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice involves the middle-aged writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who is erotically drawn to a boy named Tadzio. There is no sex, only a desire that becomes an obsession, but the desire is a metaphor representing Britten’s own yearnings for boys, which is contrasted with Auden’s indelicate habits and use of rent boys. The juxtaposition of Auden and Britten shows the horribly uptight Britten bringing out the best in Auden, who encourages him and offers to edit or rewrite Myfanwy Piper’s libretto. This warmth and enthusiasm shows another side of Auden, whose character is wonderfully portrayed by Richard Griffiths.

Alex Jennings plays Britten, and both he and Griffiths also play the roles of actors rehearsing these creative men with their habit of art, and in Jennings’ case his role as a somewhat camp and homosexually-knowing actor contrasts with his clever representation of Britten’s careful correctness. Elliot Levey portrays the supposed author of the play they are rehearsing, showing confused irritation at the actors’ attempts to alter the script, including Adrian Scarborough’s effort to interpose a song and dance routine. He plays the role of Humphrey Carpenter and is frustrated at being merely a device, but that, and the occasional frustration of actors forgetting lines, are dealt with by Kay, the stage manager who keeps it all going, despite the unexpected absence of the director. She is brilliantly played by Frances de la Tour, and I only wonder whether this delightful fancy of a rehearsal within a play would work as well with less gifted actors. As it is, the direction by Nicholas Hytner gives an excellent forward movement to Bennett’s text. This is theatre about theatre, a play about a play, and an exploration about homosexual boundaries in a world that wasn’t sure where it wanted those boundaries drawing. But in the end it’s a play about Auden, Britten and indeed Bennett himself, and as usual his dialogue is wonderfully effective.

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