Alan Bennett’sThe Habit Of Art has returned to its meta-spiritual home this week, arriving at the Oxford Playhouse on Monday night to amuse and entertain its erudite audience with in-jokes about the city’s gay scene and penises.
Those who know The Habit Of Art will appreciate that the above description doesn’t even scratch the surface of this clever, superbly written, perceptive and multi-layered play that is from one of our national treasures.
Bennett hates that phrase ‘national treasure’ – almost as much as the poet and Oxford scholar, WH Auden (Christ Church I believe).
“I am venerated! Shackled by my reputation”, wails a bored and unappreciated Auden, in echo of the playwright.
There is so much to absorb, admire and chuckle at in The Habit Of Art that it almost deserves more than one viewing.
I first came across the play in 2009 when invited to a rehearsal at the National Theatre where it was premiering.
This was understandably surreal as, there I was, sitting in the NT rehearsal room watching a play about a play being rehearsed in the NT rehearsal room. It took some minutes to get my head around the concept of life imitating art.
This is the first time the production has toured and full credit to The Original Theatre Company which has mustered a superb cast headed by Matthew Kelly and David Yelland (a Cambridge man but I’m sure it won’t be held against him).
And at the helm is a smart, intelligent director (and actor) , Philip Franks, who has a keen eye for the nuances in Bennett’s very wordy but deceptively pithy, dialogue.
The Habit Of Art explores complex relationships, friendship, sex, theatre, success, creativity and more.
It’s not a laugh out loud comedy, but there are moments when uncontrollable tittering will erupt (although, it has to be said, that opening night Oxford audience was a hard nut to crack).
It centres around a fictitious meeting in between Auden and Britten in Oxford.
It has been 30 years since the former old friends last met and the reserved Britten desperately needs to see a familiar face to boost his confidence.
We’re in a rehearsal room (just to recap) where a theatre company is staging a new work called Caliban’s Day starring old stager, Fitz (Kelly) as WH Auden and taciturn Henry (Yelland) as Britten.
The plot fluidly takes the audience from Caliban’s Day’s actors and their rehearsals, back to the real cast, as we learn a lot about the habits of both great artists and the actors playing them.
Fitz, like Auden, loves an audience, always ready with an anecdote that usually involves someone equally famous – Bennett regulars like Larkin or Spender.
Both men are unkempt although I doubt whether the estimable Fitz, who has a lengthy classical career behind him, would use the sink to wee in or book a regular weekly appointment with a rent boy.
He wears the uniform of an actor, his face is as ruddy as his bright red trousers, and he has become lazy with age, not learning his lines, eager to skip rehearsals for a better paying voiceover gig.
His Auden, we learn, lives by a strict schedule and panics when he’s late. His rooms are as chaotic as he is and he confuses a visiting BBC interviewer, Humphrey Carpenter, (John Wark wringing the pathos out of inconsequential bit-part actor, Donald), with his blow job date.
“I’m going to suck you off” says Auden. “But I’m with the BBC!” exclaims Humphrey. “I am not a rent boy. I was at Keble.”
Through most of the first half Henry doesn’t do more than sit at the back of the stage, sometimes interjecting with an odd revelatory comment. He’s quiet and unassuming.
Occasionally we see him, as Britten, auditioning boys for his new opera, Death In Venice.
But in the second act Britten arrives on Auden’s doorstep. His auditions aren’t going well, no-one has any confidence in the new work. He just wants reassurance, a friendly face.
Auden, desperate to get stuck into something new, thinks his old friend wants him to write his libretto.
“I’m no longer fashionable, no longer avant garde,” moans the composer but Auden is too excited to listen.
Yelland is exemplary both as the reserved, professional Henry and the arid, earnest Britten, his face barely revealing inner conflict, all emotions firmly buttoned up.
As Henry there are odd lines that suggest his own struggle for success but his repressed Britten is crippled by his sexuality and upbringing.
Henry’s impeccable delivery includes beautifully tempered pauses that say so much. “Do you suffer from composer’s block?” asks Auden.
Britten ponders. “No…..but Walton..takes his time.”
Yelland’s subtle, yet telling turn, is in sharp contrast to the noisy, brash Fitz, a typically diva-like leading man, played by a much better actor in Matthew Kelly.
Yapping at Fitz and Henry’s heels is Donald who is appalled that his work isn’t being recognised in the play.
As far as he’s concerned Humphrey is its ‘beating heart’. He does everything to get a bigger share of the limelight.
Writer Neil (Robert Mountford) is tearing his hair out as the cast cut and change his scenes. “Do we really need talking furniture?” asks Fitz.
There’s an extended scene where Auden discusses the shape, design and variation of phalluses. Fitz questions Neil about whether the great poet would have talked so coarsely.
“Actors,” sighs Neil to long-suffering company manager Kay (Veronica Roberts, just brilliant, darling). “Why can’t they just say the words?”
Through it all the ever obliging Tim (Benjamin Chandler), who plays Stuart, just does as he’s told. He knows his place even if Stuart does have dreams that extend beyond going down on his knees.
We are elevated by an insight into the lives of both Auden and Britten, fascinated by the shambolic rehearsal process that sees the cast parry and find their voices, and surprised by the nuggets of real life that drop into the dialogue.
It is an unfortunate truth that when the world at large considers the lives and work of Wystan Hugh Auden and Benjamin Britten they will only ever remember the poet and the composer.
The sex worker, servicing the slovenly Auden in his filthy Oxford rooms, and the bit-part actor, who is no more than a plot device in a play about their lives, will be erased from their biographies as though they never were.
Witty, insightful, knowledgeable, Alan Bennett’s complex, vibrant comedy is a real gem.
The Habit of Art runs at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday before touring to Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford (Oct 1-6); New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (Oct 8-13); Richmond Theatre (Oct 15-20); Liverpool Playhouse (Oct 23-27); Cambridge Arts Theatre (Oct 29-Nov 3); Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (Nov 6-10); The Lowry, Salford (Nov 12-17); Palace Theatre, Southend (Nov 19-24); and Malvern Festival Theatre (Nov 27-Dec 1).