The Theatreguide.London Review
Habit of Art
Bennett's play about W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten is at heart an
assertion that even a warts-and-all portrait of the artist will
eventually find the image of the artist and the art triumphing over the
poet and the composer, who had collaborated in the 1930s, meeting again
in 1972 when Britten comes to Auden for help with his proposed opera of
Mann's Death In Venice. Auden is very supportive, but his encouragement
comes in the form of urging Britten to be more adventurous musically
and dramatically, which is not exactly what the subdued and cautious
composer wants to hear.
from Auden's slovenliness and Britten's prissiness, lie in the fact
that both men were homosexuals with life partners but an openness to
side dalliances, Auden with rent boys and Britten in mostly chaste
romances with choirboys.
pretend to be shocked by this - indeed, it clearly prefers Auden's
openness to Britten's semi-closeted decorum - so it very easily moves
past the gossip level to reaffirm respect for the artists who continue
to work and to uphold their standards even in the face of waning
evening's worth of drama, and in fact most of it is accomplished in one
long second-act scene. So Bennett employs the openly awkward device of
making his play about a group of actors rehearsing a play about Auden
and Britten, the inner play less sympathetic toward the two men.
for some entertaining backstage bitchiness and the sort of theatrical
in-jokes that the audience is in on, and while it provides a role (as
stage manager running the rehearsal) for the always welcome Frances de
la Tour, it is essentially filler adding little to the play's theme
beyond the implicit extension of its celebration of the artist to
include playwrights and actors.
play is rather thin, not offering much illumination of either the two
artists or the theme. It is, however, rarely dull, the wit of the
playwright and the charm of the actors carrying the evening through its
as Auden and the actor playing him and Alex Jennings as
and his actor both clearly have a lot of fun with their roles,
differentiating between the two faces they wear and savouring Bennett's
epigrammatic wit. But you can't help sensing that both are coasting
through the play, neither being stretched by their roles nor bringing
much to them beyond their own inestimable charm.
the same is
true of Frances de la Tour and of Adrian Scarborough as an actor
unhappy with his supporting role in the inner play - if you've seen
either of them before, well here they are again. Like the two stars,
they're doing nothing new, though like the two stars they do what they
do with attractive and entertaining expertise.
the real reason
for seeing The Habit Of Art is that Bennett provides a vehicle for
actors you like to do the things you like to watch them do - and that
may well be more than enough.
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The Habit of Art - National Theatre 2010