Alan Bennett's highly-anticipated new play The Habit of Art premiered at the NT Lyttelton last night (17 November 2009, previews from 5 November), marking a return to the venue and director (Nicholas Hytner) that staged his 2004 mega hit The History Boys.
The Habit of Art examines the stormy relationship between composer Benjamin Britten and poet WH Auden, imagining a reunion between the former friends 25 years after they last saw each other. Also containing scenes set in the rehearsal room of a play called Caliban's Day (the original title until Hytner suggested the current one), it was described by the director recently as being “about the business of putting a play together as much as it is about making music or poetry”.
Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings lead the cast as Auden and Britten, the former stepping in last month to replace Michael Gambon (See News, 2 Oct 2009).
"A smash hit if I ever saw one" writes Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, leading a chorus of colleagues in praising Bennett's first play since the hugely acclaimed History Boys. But despite a clutch of five star ratings, not all overnight reviewers were in agreement, with some accusing The Habit of Art of being overly "self-referential" with its theatrical focus and "rather contrived". But director Nicholas Hytner was singled out by most for his "superbly fluid" production of a Bennett's intricate play-within-a-play, even if some still found the structure overly complex, containing "enough layers to make Pirandello blanch" in the words of Michael Billington. Meanwhile, Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings were generally considered excellent as the "dried up" Auden and "prissy" Britten.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett’s first new play for five years is a brilliant, witty and highly enjoyable meditation on the ethics and methods of biography, friendship in art, and the business of putting on a play. It’s deliciously funny, too, on the subject of the love that cannot speak its name because it has its mouth full … It is 1972 and Bennett has ingeniously engineered a fictional reunion of the two friends after 20 years … There are two great conversational scenes between Auden and Britten but Nicholas Hytner’s superbly light-fingered production is really an exercise in the open-ended, provisional nature of all theatre, with a rousing defense of the medium, and of the National itself.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (five stars) - “Because of the play-within-a-play structure, Richard Griffiths, heroically and superlatively replacing the indisposed Michael Gambon, plays both Auden and Fitz, the mountainous, heterosexual, amiably forgetful actor who has taken on the role. The incongruity is wonderfully entertaining, rather as though nice, equable old Arthur Negus had been cast as Genet … Nicholas Hytner directs with an unerring instinct for the volatile nature of the material in a cracking production that flirtatiously keeps the audience up to speed with the outrageous amount of information and allusion ... Hytner revealed at a press conference that Bennett at one stage wanted to call the play Caliban’s Day and you can see why. For just as The Sea and the Mirror, Auden’s poetic meditation on The Tempest gives the last word to the low-class monster, so Bennett allows the rent-boy to speak up at the conclusion for the culturally excluded bit-players who service the educated but don’t get a look-in at life’s ongoing arts festival.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “So much of The Habit of Art is so engaging, it seems churlish to point out its basic problem: which is that even the excellence of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings can’t stop one feeling that Bennett doesn’t fully trust his material. He isn’t confident that his portraiture can sustain a full-length play … With even the furniture adding to the dialogue, so that a chair calls Auden an 'odiferous poet with a face like his balls', there’s an obvious danger of confusion. Yet, thanks to the fluent production that Nicholas Hytner stages in what’s partly a rehearsal room, partly Auden’s gloriously messy Oxford digs, the result is only thematically a muddle … But better a multi-course Bennett banquet than almost anyone else’s neat meal, especially when the lead actors are so strong.””
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Artists in their late work often feel free to digress and experiment. Alan Bennett takes full advantage of this licence in a multi-levelled work that deals with sex, death, creativity, biography and much else besides. And, while it may not possess the universal resonance of The History Boys, the play has the characteristic Bennett mix of wit and wistfulness … The structure is certainly complex … it will be seen that the play has enough layers to make Pirandello blanch … Bennett's play is at its strongest when it deals with the theme implicit in its title: the idea that, for the artist, creativity is a constant, if troubling imperative. Temperamentally, the two men could hardly be more different: the one a model of restraint, the other an apostle of sexual freedom and something of an intellectual bully … A play that could easily seem tricksy is also given a superbly fluid production by Nicholas Hytner and is beautifully acted.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) - “I thought it unlikely that he would be able to equal the success of The History Boys (2004) but The Habit of Art is another absolute cracker … the older he gets, the more daring and ambitious Bennett seems to become … In lesser hands the framing device might have become more interesting than the story of Auden and Britten. With extraordinary panache, however, Bennett and his director Nicholas Hytner, keep us equally interested in both the rehearsal process and the portrait of Auden and Britten … Richard Griffiths makes you care about Auden’s frailty and dried up talent while also playing an actor who can’t remember his lines and hates the way Auden is presented. Alex Jennings is superb, too, as the pained, prissily fastidious Britten and as a college scout grumbling about the squalor of Auden’s room … The Habit of Art is a smash hit if I ever saw one.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “A new Alan Bennett play is an event. This is especially true since 2004’s The History Boys … The Habit of Art is less straightforwardly rewarding. It’s funny, and sometimes brilliantly so, but strangely uninvolving. Although Bennett savours his material, he doesn’t make it sing … Bennett continues his concern with the relationship between homosexuality and creativity. Sexual misunderstandings provide moments of ripe humour … Fundamentally, though, this is a cerebral and self-referential play. Bennett proffers some wonderful lines. The performances are proficient, and Nicholas Hytner’s direction is fluid. However, lurking awkwardly inside this rather contrived creation is a different, more emotionally resonant play. It’s a shame that it’s been submerged. ”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “Alan Bennett, being English, hates to be too ‘artsy’ and instead wraps serious subjects in layers of comedy. He is at it again with his latest play, which is satirical, serious and self-indulgent, sometimes all at the same time … We are also introduced to Auden’s former friend Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings, nicely queeny). Frances de la Tour does a lovely turn as a laconic stage manager … There are various other theatrical ‘in’ jokes. Good fun, but of limited appeal. Mr Bennett may feel he has deserved a chance to be skittish and he may be right … Elliot Levey is excellent as the pretentious author of the Auden/Britten play, mouthing the lines as he watches the rehearsals. The bad language and gags about men’s appendages become a little tiresome after the first hour … Shorn of the Bennettesque larking about, that might have made a better play, even if it might not have given a willing audience so many throaty laughs.”