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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Habit of Art
Lyttelton Theatre 2009-2010

Alan 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 warts.

He imagines 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.

The warts, apart 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.

The play can't 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 powers.

That's hardly an 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.

While this allows 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.

So ultimately the 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 shallow waters. 

Richard Griffiths as Auden and  the actor playing him and Alex Jennings as Britten 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.

Much 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.

So 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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Habit of Art - National Theatre 2010