The Habit Of Art In York
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett, is a quirkily intriguing play with more colourful layers than a rainbow cake. Superficially, it contrives a late reunion, in 1973, of York-born poet-laureate W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, Britain’s foremost composer. Award-winning actors Matthew Kelly and David Yelland superbly capture the character, presence and interaction of these two creative geniuses, temperamentally poles apart.
Yet, a mere biographical dramatisation this is not. In many ways, it is more about the actors playing their parts because the vehicle that drives it is a rather chaotic free-for-all rehearsal of a bizarrely trendy play, referencing Caliban, the half human, half monster dark force of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. All abstruse literary allusions and psychological insights, the play is supposedly, among other things, a recreation of a famous t.v. interview with the poet.
Kelly modulates effortlessly between Auden and the ageing, tetchy, twitchy, terribly forgetful actor playing his part, Fitz. He’s bestrode the boards with some of the best and it’s clear he’s good, well cast, even though he might be over the hill and his mind on a commercial he’s got scheduled later. Yelland’s Henry, too, seems well chosen and in genuine sympathy with Britten. Both actors' achievement is that we often forget whom they are playing.
In this play within the play, or across the play, or maybe the play itself, who knows, we have the aspiring young thesp, Donald, admirably brought to life by John Wark, in the role of Humphrey Carpenter, the once-famous television interviewer and future biographer of both men. On stage most of the time as commentator and semi-participant observer, he begins to suspect he is some mere narrative device – and wishes to big up his part to reflect some of Carpenter’s wider musical interests. It’s an amusing element of the play as a satire on the staging of a play, the problems encountered on the way with actors, script, director and writer.
Veronica Roberts does sterling work as Kay, the stage-manager standing in as director, who has seen it all before and knows how to smooth ruffled egos, not least that of the embattled author Neil (Robert Mountford).
On a rather more abstract level, we wonder if we should really be more concerned to focus on what the playwrights (Bennett and Neil) are trying to tell us about art as the compulsion to create, the lifelong habit – ultimately doomed – of struggling to express the inexpressible, and how this is inextricably connected with our own sexuality, perhaps. But let’s not get too deeply Freudian: this is also a broad comedy, overflowing with university wit and theatrical in-jokes. There’s lots of delightful camping – and, it has to be said, a good topping of bawdry involving what one supposes to be an atypical rentboy, unusually articulate and far-sighted.
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Under Philip Franks’s resourceful direction and within Adrian Linford’s ingenious set combining the shabby scholarly ambience of Auden’s college room with the crowded chaos of a rehearsal space, this play is utterly compelling. Bennett’s Auden is a spectacular creation provoking thought and thinking provocatively.
Let all our thinks be thanks, as the poet himself might have said.
The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett, is at York Theatre Royal until September 8, before touring.
The Habit Of Art In York, 6th September 2018, 6:00 AM