Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art
October 23-27; on tour until December 1
Take two famous actors playing two famous actors playing two famous people… complicated enough but you also have Alexandra Guelff dazzling in the disparate roles of ditsy George, the enthusiastic but rather inept Assistant Stage Manager who then, incongruously and inconsistently, rises to the
occasion to step in and cover for two actors who never made it to rehearsals. Well, you have to admire Alan Bennett for not going for the obvious laugh. You also can’t fail but to admire Miss Guelff’s gorgeous voice in the role of young boys being auditioned by Benjamin Britten.
And perhaps I got the middle bit wrong because the play within the play, about a meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, could be an amateur production taking place as it does in a crowded, fussily furnished rehearsal room decked out like a village jumble sale. That said, they’re all terribly professional, and completely self-obsessed, and to be honest, it’s the play outside the play which is the more interesting, unless you’re a huge fan of Auden, Britten and Bennett, for it sometimes feels as if he’s does tons of research and is seeking somewhere to make full use of it. Exposition reigns.
Dialogue of course is where the playwright himself reigns, with supremely shrewd observations and witty comments, frequently quite shocking. Although nowhere near the realisation that Britten died at 63, Auden at 66; you’d easily mistake the latter for a good 20 years older as he shuffles round his disgusting flat in his disgusting clothes. That other old warhouse, Britten, is the complete opposite, so prissy, repressed and uptight as he sits up straight, it’s impossible to imagine him ever being able to lie down. Matthew Kelly and David Yelland are absolutely terrific, teasing out every nuance and pinning down every laugh with the exquisit timing of experience and expertise. It’s all very Alan Ayckbourn, dare I say; you overhear people coming out of one of his plays calling it a good laugh, oblivious to the skull beneath the skin, or rather, the grin of a clown. Tragedy iced over with comedy is also at play here. Composer and writer are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum but alike in that one is a great big fish in a small pond, the other, big over the pond. Full of braggadicio, Auden’s rampant, Britten’s subtle, pathos garners the audience’s sympathy because of their boredom, loneliness and utter insecurity. It’s poignantly underlined in the way Auden keeps on begging to work with Britten again rather than turning on him with bitchy spitefulness; not that I’m saying it’s what most artistic types would do. Not at all.
Insecurity is something which two of the other characters have in spades, largely mirroring each other: Neil, the author of the play, ‘Caliban’s Day’, whom Robert Mountford makes every bit as fussy and frustrated as Donald (John Wark), in the role of biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. This play pivots on an interview with Auden but as the latter takes centre stage, Donald simply does not know where to put himself, and in one of the funniest scenes, resorts to truly desperate measures. In contrast, easy-going Stuart, the rent boy hired by Auden, played by Tim, played by Benjamin Chandler, is there to remind us that Art may be a Habit, and whether Music is higher up the echelon than Words debatable, but life is for living. And in an even greater contrast, holding the whole thing together, and no doubt herding cats as a sideline, Veronica Roberts does a splendid job as the longsuffering Company Stage Manager – doing a splendid job of soothing egos and smoothing things over, utterly practical in ensuring that the show must go on.
Alan Bennett gleefully pokes fun at actors, composers and writers, celebrity and self-loathing, picking out all the weaknesses, and the audience certainly found this an entertaining play. But for me, unfortunately, there just didn’t seem to be any point, other than the one in ‘disappointing’. I read somewhere that one organisation sent Alan Bennett an invitation, and foolishly described him as ‘winsome’, to which he replied: ‘Win some; lose some’. I know exactly what he means.