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The Habit of Art (Tour - Milton Keynes)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The older Alan Bennett gets, the grumpier he seems to become. This revered national treasure has shifted his ground from the early Beyond the Fringe days of witty satire to an elder statesman’s pontificating on everything from actors’ neuroses to homophobic intolerance.

He retains the elegant ability to wrap up biting comment in gentle humour, but the emphasis in his latest play is firmly on reflective, philosophical musings rather than laughs for their own sake. It’s a pretty esoteric subject, too – an imagined meeting between the poet WH Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten in 1972 as they both head towards decline and death. It’s framed in the theatrical device of a play within a play, with the set-up of a National Theatre rehearsal room in which a misunderstood playwright is struggling to keep control of his script in the hands of the increasingly rebellious actors.

What really shines in Nicholas Hytner’s impressive production, now on a nine-week national tour, is the performances. Desmond Barrit as Auden (or at least the actor playing Auden) is wonderfully ebullient, obnoxious and declamatory, while Malcolm Sinclair offers a delightful foil as Britten and the cynical hack portraying him.

The magnificent and enormous set (Bob Crowley) offers a perfect recreation of the rehearsal room, and the 13-strong cast are permanently on stage, as if watching the run-through in real life. Selina Caddell, as the stage manager trying to hold things together in the absence of the director, spars entertainingly with Matthew Cottle, whose actor character is struggling to ‘catch’ the essence of his role in the play, resorting in desperation to a hilarious drag-act tuba performance.

And if the theatrical navel-gazing sometimes feels an in-joke too far, or the resolution seems a little self-indulgent on Bennett’s part, there’s no detracting from the fine work on display from a company and a director at the top of their game.


Nicholas Hytner’s production of Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art, which imagines a final creative collaboration between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten, is technically superb. It takes some very complicated materials - a double cast of characters, a stunningly complicated layered set reflecting some stunningly complicated layered writing, conflicting ideologies and sensibilities and makes a piece of theatre that is richly rewarding on all fronts, visually, intellectually and entertainingly.

Exhilarating and provocative this is a play that revisits some of Bennett’s key preoccupations. It urges us to question the value of art in our society. It interrogates our complicated fascination with sex, death, authenticity and success. It conjures with a multitude of narrative forms, splicing together literary history, biography, drama and music. It is also irrepressibly hilarious.

Structurally, this is a play within a play. We are privy to the inmost workings of theatre as we watch the actors rehearse a play called Caliban’s Day, inspired by Auden’s poem the Sea and the Mirror, which permits the discounted, sidelined and monstrous to have their voice. That the actors can move seamlessly between their two sets of characters is testament to the quality of both the writing and the direction.

Bob Crowley’s elaborate stage design is also a place of shifting tensions and realities: now it is the rehearsal room in the National Theatre, complete with broken chairs, coffee machines, and sound desk; now it is Auden’s insalubrious, chaotic room in Christ Church, Oxford, brimming with papers, bottles, underwear and unspecific detritus.

Desmond Barrit gives a robust performance of Auden’s sexual punctiliousness and personal immodesty and also of an irascible darling (Fitz) sympathetic to Auden’s portrayal. He is archly balanced by the fastidious restraint of Malcolm Sinclair’s Benjamin Brittain. All the performances are excellent, and the comic timing is brilliant. Selina Cadell’s stage manager is superbly modulated. Matthew Cottle gives a tender account of the biographer Humphrey Carpenter.

My only quibble is that it slumps slightly just towards the end, when the rehearsal comes to an end and what is left is a coda in which the author and the stage manager (in lieu of the absent director) who have been negotiating their territories throughout the play offer a philosophical disquisition on the nature of theatre which somehow flattens the verve of the rest of the play. That said this was a thrilling evening, moving, funny and illuminating – theatre at its very best

- Claire Steele


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