Sunday, January 24, 2010

Theatre Review : The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett (dir Nicholas Hyter 11/1/10)

If genius may be defined as someone who somehow manages to both have his cake and eat it, then Alan Bennett certainly comes close in his latest collaboration with Nicholas Hytner at the National.

It's all in the structure. A theatre troup rehearses a play about a fictional meeting between W S Auden and Benjamin Brittain in Auden's rooms in Oxford shortly before their deaths. A simple play about two of Britain's leading artists of the 20th Century had many possibilities: the difference between composing music and poetry; the changing attitude to homosexuality in the 20th Century; the contrast between the buttoned-up Brittain and the uninhibited Auden to name but a few.

But Bennett probably realised that this would provide arid fare. So by not just framing but immersing the inner play ("Caliban's Day") within the rehearsal studio he liberates his material, giving scope for the actors to bicker with the playwright, the Assistant Director and each other and thus provide a wry but very funny commentary on the nature of the theatrical process. In doing so he overcomes some of the portentiousness which is still residual within Caliban's Day, and gives himself scope for a multitude of scatalogical observations which one couldn't realistically envisage when Benjamin Brittain was on stage.

Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings have no need to break sweat playing Fitz/Auden and Henry/Brittain respectively. Griffiths plays up to the fact that the avuncular Fitz is dissimilar to Auden both in face and form, although Jennings' camped up Henry looks very similar to Brittain. Adrian Scarborough plays their mutual biographer Humphrey Carpenter, sent by BBC Oxford to interview Auden and mistaken by Auden for a rent boy, and Frances de la Tour is excellent as the Assistant Director, ensuring that egos remain massaged, self-esteem boosted and the malign presence of the playwright (Elliot Levey - not a bit like Alan Bennett!) restrained from insisting on the inclusion of some of the worst verse ever to have graced the boards of the Lyttleton.

The structure softens the fact that both the protagonists in Caliban's Day were both pretty unattractive characters. When Brittain cut a friend for slights real or imagined it was for life. Auden's personal hygene (dwelt upon in lurid detail) left everything to be desired. Whilst they had collaborated - notably on Night Mail - in the 1930's, the possibilty of Brittain travelling to meet Auden towards the end of their lives could not realistically be entered into. But in this transparently artificial setting, the rendezvous can take place - although as the focus moves from the production of the play to the inner play itself, the pace drops, the laughs dry up and conversations about the nature of Art, and the relationship between the artists, come to the fore.

It makes a well-balanced whole: funny - both filthy and ludicrous in places - but also addressing some big ideas. It is Bennett's peculiar genius to make the Big Questions about the nature of art, history, sexuality so entertaining and accessible.

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