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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttleton)


  Frances de la Tour/ Ph: Johann Persson

At this late date in his exalted career, Alan Bennett, age 75, has earned the right not to write a well-made play – not that he's ever made a specialty of tidiness up until now. So along comes The Habit of Art, a play that is to Bennett's previous output analogous to, say, Wonderful Tennessee, The Play About the Baby, or Four Baboons Adoring the Sun in the collected works of, respectively, Brian Friel, Edward Albee, and John Guare. In each case, those plays followed award-winning crowd-pullers, following which the dramatists concerned decided to go their own way and see if an audience would follow along.
To be sure, The Habit of Art doesn't have the inbuilt appeal of its predecessor in the Bennett canon, the phenomenally successful The History Boys: Auden and Britten constitute so much arcana compared to the exploits of a collective of cute (for the most part) and clever schoolboys. But in some ways, I liked this new one better, not least for the sense that it originates from somewhere way deep within its author, who is writing about artists who came before him as a way of writing about himself. Sometimes, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, biography is the purest form of autobiography.   
And so we have a multi-layered work that made headlines well before opening, when its original leading man, Michael Gambon, departed the production several days into rehearsal, only to be replaced as the craggy-faced Auden by the putty-like, jowly Richard Griffiths. The History Boys Tony winner who couldn’t look less like the sometimes austere, amply sexual poet here seen late in life upon his return from the United States to Oxford. Back in Britain, Auden is glimpsed in his fairly squalid university lodgings urinating into the sink and anxiously awaiting the arrival of a rent boy (played gamely by Stephen Wight, late of the revival of Dealer's Choice). A close encounter of an altogether different kind prompts Auden's (fictional) reunion with erstwhile collaborator Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings at his most prim), the composer here re-encountered at that point in his music-making life where he is working on Death In Venice, an opera about – you guessed it – an older man’s infatuation with a younger male vision of perfection. (Auden, to be fair, is less interested in perfection than a proper blowjob.)
Shocked? Well, don’t in that case hurry to The Habit of Art, which is rude in ways that by now are fairly commonplace for Bennett, who shocked more delicate playgoers at The History Boys with the narrative about the teacher Hector’s penchant for fondling comelier students on his motorbike. This play is as unabashed in its attitude toward – and discussion of – sex and sexuality, while at the same time shot through with comparable studies in longing, whether expressed or not. It’s also, as is Bennett’s habit, often thunderingly funny and within minutes ineffably sad, a tightrope walked brilliantly by the baby-faced Griffiths, who at times resembles someone who has spent an entire life with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar; it’s a beautiful performance, ably supported by Jennings, both men deftly juggling two roles.
The fact is, there’s a second play running concurrently as well, without which the Auden/Britten reunion of sorts might well seem considerably more remote. On the very day that half the National Theatre creative team seems to have been called away for some conference or other, we find Griffiths and co-star Alex Jennings playing the very actors whose job it is to embody Auden and Britten in a repertory effort scripted by Bennett’s on-stage alter ego, Elliot Levey, whose dark, relatively compact and youthful presence couldn’t be further from the tall, fair Bennett’s own visage. Then again, Levey isn’t meant actually to be Bennett any more than we are to believe that Griffiths could in a month of poetry readings act as any kind of surrogate Auden. Leave such leaps to the very imaginative powers that this play celebrates and in which it is steeped. Those fantastical flights of possibility are in turn embodied by a deliciously glamorous Frances de la Tour, a second History Boys trophy-bearer who goes one better as the put-upon stage manager whose dropping shoulders bear testament to one too many burdensome thespian egos. The intricacies of rep, incidentally, make for the funniest Chekhov joke I've ever seen. (OK, I haven't come across too many others.)
You could – and many will – carp at the bald-faced nature of an event that brings in Auden and Britten’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, in the squirrely form of the ever-delightful Adrian Scarborough, on hand to provide chunks of narrative that can’t otherwise be folded in. But that’s to take a boringly literal-minded approach to a play very much in the putative ”late style” that Bennett raises in the published preface to his play text only to sort of dismiss. The Habit of Art, after all, gives literal voice to poetry and music – in what precise way should remain a surprise – and inhabits dramatic terrain not that far removed from the art we habitually associate with Magritte. And if the play-within-a-play doesn’t seem as if it would be written by the writer we actually see on stage before us, who cares? Its provenance rests finally in the ever-audacious outpourings of Bennett, who saves his parting shot for a paean to the theater awash in the letter P. Suffice it to say by way of response that this play is Pure Pleasure; it could well get to be a habit, and perhaps not only with me.

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