Sunday, April 25, 2010

“The Habit of Art” by Alan Bennett

“The Habit of Art” by Alan Bennett

Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

The Coolidge Corner Theatre has hosted four NT Live productions from Britain’s National Theatre this year—not live theatre on stage, but the next best thing: high-definition presentations of currently running plays, which are often sold out in London. The most recent is “The Habit of Art” by British playwright Alan Bennett, author of “The Madness of King George,” “The History Boys,” and a dozen other plays.

Poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, who were good friends, once collaborated on a choral piece that was staged in New York. It failed miserably, and Britten blamed Auden’s libretto for the failure. He apparently blamed Auden in a very personal way, because he also ended his friendship with Auden and, as far as anyone knows, they never saw each another again. Using the time-honored “what if?” fictional device, Bennett imagines what would have transpired if the two had met once more.

But this is only the core story of “The Habit of Art.” Bennett puts the play about Auden and Britten within a play about actors at London’s National Theatre rehearsing a play about Auden and Britten. The set is a reproduction of a rehearsal space at the National Theatre, and the actors are suitably “dressed down,” both in their clothing and their attitudes—particularly so at this rehearsal, where the director has been called away and the stage manager (marvelously played by Frances de la Tour) is running the show. They frequently stop in the middle of the action to question what their characters are doing, often addressing the playwright, who (to the dismay of some cast members, and often to his own dismay) is in attendance at this rehearsal.

We’re meant to feel that we’re getting an inside look at a playwright and actors at work. Mostly it is quite successful and entertaining, though, once in a while, what the actors say about their roles, or question the playwright about, seems a bit forced (witness the play-within-the-play’s narrator, who, fearing his character won’t make a strong enough impression on the audience, “tries out” cross-dressing and a blowing on a tuba). But for anyone who has never acted or seen actors at work—and perhaps even more so for someone who has—it’s fascinating to hear their concerns as they try to figure who the people they’re playing really are.

One also gets the sense of how personally involved actors become with their characters. This reviewer, having acted himself, has experienced the enmeshment with one’s personal life that inevitably seems to happen when playing a role. The actors in “The Habit of Art” convey this convincingly. We also see actors picking instantly picking up the roles of other actors who couldn’t make the rehearsal, displaying their versatility (Jennings and de la Tour are particularly good at this).

There are some entertaining “naughty bits,” too, as the English like to call them, when Auden and Britten interact with a “rent boy” (read male prostitute) who Auden has hired to come to his home.

But the stand-out portion of the performance for this reviewer was the play-within-the-play itself—especially when Auden and Britten finally confront one another. Richard Griffiths is, of course, not in make-up for his role as Auden during this putative rehearsal of the play, and he’s also a much more obese man than Auden was, but one feels that he’s captured Auden’s physical presence, mannerisms, and vaunted eloquence. One never doubts that one is hearing the voice of a poet when he speaks, whether he’s being profound and insightful or playful and sarcastic—though he’s never overbearing, either.

Alex Jennings as Britten is the perfect foil for Auden—much more circumspect, though no less self-centered and egotistical. Britten has come to Auden seeking support for his latest project, an opera based on Thomas Mann’s novel “Death in Venice.” Besides the project itself, the two discuss their respective lovers and respective views on how they handle being famous and homosexual—a much dicier prospect in their day. They discuss their respective arts, music and poetry, and make the occasional dig at one another. Jennings and Griffiths truly convey the comfort/discomfort of old friends who’ve quarreled getting back together after a long hiatus. It’s sad, moving, frustrating, and amusing.

Anyone interested in theatre, music, or art in general, and anyone who simply enjoys being entertained by superb actors, will find “The Habit of Art” well worth seeing. There is just one more screening of the play, on Saturday, May 8, 2010 @ 1:00pm. Tickets are available at the Coolidge Theatre box office or online at:

The Coolidge Theatre will also be hosting an additional NT Live play, which has recently been added to the series: “London Assurance,” set in Victorian England, which is also sold out in for its entire run in London. Watch the Coolidge Theatre website for information on when the play will be shown.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. Sounds like an interesting piece. I love Britten's War Requieum.