Saturday, 27 February 2010

Mr Bennett and the Gift of Art

“About the play... there is always somebody left out...”
The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett.

Alan Bennett has the reputation of writing cosy and Northern dramas, populated by strong matriarchs, put upon husbands and single, sensitive sons; but the reality of his writing is far from this. His prose and memoir writing has charted his upbringing in Leeds and the lives of his parents, but none of this could be called cosy. His drama certainly isn’t

Last Saturday, we went to see his latest play, The Habit of Art, at the National Theatre. It was about a, fictional, meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in the 1970’s when Britten was writing his opera Death in Venice and Auden had virtually retired to Oxford. But this wasn’t a dry and academic plot. During the cause of the play Auden has a date with a local rent boy and an interviewer from BBC Radio (Humphrey Carpenter, who would later write biographies of both Auden & Britten), who Auden mistakes for his afternoon rent boy.

Bennett has chosen the structure of a play-within-a-play for this play and it’s a structure that works very well. The play is set during an afternoon rehearsal of the play-within-a-play. This gives the opportunity for the actors to come out of character and discuss the play they’re rehearsing, to discuss the details of Auden and Britten’s lives.

On the surface the play appears to be about biography and the creation of art, one character is the biographer of both Auden and Britten, and Britton comes to Auden for help in the creation of his opera; but this is a much more person play. There is an exchange between Auden and Britten were they talk about being gay men in the public eye were their sexuality has become public knowledge, through the fact that they have male partners, but they have never officially “come out.”

The writing here shows Bennett at his best. There is his sharp comedy, which comes out of the characters he’s created and the situation he’s put them in (there’s a scene involving talking furniture which is both embarrassing and very funny). I also wonder how much is the setting was taken from real life, the National Theatre has almost become the home for his recent plays and this one is set in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre.

The performances here are of the high standard I’ve come to expect at the National Theatre, with Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings turning in commanding performances as the actors playing Auden and Britton, but the stand out performance was that of Frances de la Tour as the Stage Manager running the rehearsal. So much of her role is to anchor the rehearsal, constantly drawing the characters back to their performance, but at the end she reveals that she was once an actress but she gave up acting because it became no longer special for her.

A new Alan Bennett play, for me, is one of those things I don’t want to miss. His writing is interesting but also emotionally engaging with a riche humour running through it. He’s certainly one of our greatest living dramatists, though he always pushes against the label of “National Treasure”, and I can’t blame him. Who would want to be put in a glass cage in museum somewhere, like a crown or a piece of parchment?


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