Michael Gambon has pulled out of the upcoming world premiere of Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art under doctor’s advice while he recovers from an undisclosed minor illness. He will be replaced by Richard Griffiths as poet WH Auden opposite Alex Jennings as composer Benjamin Britten in the production, directed by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, which is still due to open in the NT Lyttelton on 17 November 2009 (previews from 5 November).

The actor said today: "I’m really disappointed to be pulling out of this play, as I’m temporarily not firing on all cylinders. The timing is very unfortunate, but I have been told to rest for a couple of weeks. This means I must let the show go on without me."

The Habit of Art - Bennett’s first new play since The History Boys, which premiered in 2004 at the National, starring Griffiths and directed by Hytner - examines the stormy relationship between Britten and Auden, imagining a meeting between the former friends, 25 years after they last saw each other, in which they are “observed and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer and a young man from the local bus station”.

Griffiths created the role of Hector in Bennett’s The History Boys at the NT, on international tour, on Broadway and on film, winning the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle, Laurence Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Actor. His many other stage credits include, most recently, Equus opposite Daniel Radcliffe in the West End and on Broadway.

The cast also features fellow History Boys alumna Frances de la Tour as well as Adrian Scarborough, John Heffernan, Elliot Levey and Stephen Wight. The production is designed by Bob Crowley, with lighting by Mark Henderson and sound by Paul Groothuis.

Gambon’s withdrawal from The Habit of Art follows a press briefing at the National last week at which Hytner joked that he was going to force Gambon to read Auden’s work; in interviews, the actor had admitted to having not read either JK Rowling or Jane Austen, despite starring in Harry Potter and Emma.

In a statement today, Hytner said: “We’re all extremely sorry that Michael Gambon has had to withdraw from The Habit of Art, but Alan Bennett and I couldn’t be more grateful to our old friend Richard Griffiths for agreeing to take on this considerable challenge at such short notice.

The Habit of Art is about the business of putting a play together as much as it is about making music or poetry. Richard Griffiths will play the actor, Fitz, who plays the poet W H Auden in a play set in a rehearsal room as a group of actors work through a play about Auden and Benjamin Britten. We’re looking forward to taking creative advantage of this unexpected twist in our own rehearsal process.”