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The Habit of Art review

Joan Davies on one of the plays of the year at the Lowry

Published on October 9th 2010.

The Habit of Art review

The National Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s 2009 play The Habit of Art is currently visiting The Lowry. This is Bennett’s fifth play for the National and follows his great recent success, The History Boys.

This is a play about ideas, about art, the artistic drive, ageing, reminiscence, the ethics of biography and privacy and about the process of drama.

The Habit of Art is very different. The story is based around an imaginary early 70s meeting between poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

They had been friends and artistic collaborators years previously when Auden wrote the words, the libretto, to some of Britten’s operas, but were no longer close. Using the familiar ‘play within a play’ structure Bennett has us watching a National Theatre rehearsal for the fictional Caliban’s Day in which two actors rehearse the roles of Auden and Britten.

Bennett’s been clever in choosing these two artists, very different characters but both important cultural figures during Bennett’s younger life with a wide range of work to draw on. Their earlier friendship and the later tension between them provides a seam for Bennett to explore, and their homosexuality, which in their earlier years had exposed them to the threat of prosecution, continues to colour their lives, shaping their choices about life and art and friendship.

The two main actors, Desmond Barrit (as Fitz playing WH Auden), and Malcolm Sinclair (as Henry playing Benjamin Britten) give accomplished performances. Barritt’s central role holds the stage with confidence and clarity, delivering Auden’s pointed remarks with wit and relish and displaying the actor Fitz’s insecurities with a conviction which elicits some degree of sympathy. Sinclair gradually reveals the more certain Henry, enjoying the frisson his occasional hints at a past create among the production team, and enjoying his performance of the more guarded, arguably repressed composer Britten.

It’s a complex, multi-layered play that’s remarkably engaging and entertaining, though fans of The History Boys may be disappointed at the lower laughs count.

Within ten years of this imagined meeting both artists had died. So instead of the youthful optimism of a group of bright sixth-formers we treated to a fair helping of the naturally nostalgic tendencies of the late middle-aged. A treat it is too.

In Bennett’s imagination Britten has come to consult Auden about his current work, turning Thomas Mann’s novella ’Death in Venice’ into an opera. In a delightfully rich scene the artists re-bond over memories of their earlier artistic collaboration before trying to address problems, artistic and personal, of the new venture.

Again the brilliance of Bennett’s choice of characters shines. As Auden becomes more entranced with the idea of working on this opera he describes the key moments of Mann’s novella with an almost cinematic appreciation, an appreciation that the audience, largely familiar with the work through Visconti’s film and Dirk Bogarde’s performance can share.

While Barritt and Sinclair both shine the work is clearly dependent on a tight ensemble. Selina Caddell as Stage Manager Kay provides a portrait of efficiency combined with the sensitivity necessary to deal with the uncertainties of her actors and Simon Bubb as the author manages the changes of mood from confidence to despair and resignation that Bennett must have many times lived while watching his plays in rehearsal.

The extensive and finely detailed set by designer Bob Crowley, a set within a set, represents the shambolic and probably filthy rooms Auden occupied placed within the National’s rehearsal space. Director Nicholas Hytner, director at the Royal Exchange during the eighties, has ensured a convincing presentation of the rehearsal process. Barritt and Sinclair flit back and forwards between portraying the actors, Fitz and Henry, and the artists, Auden and Britten, easily taking the audience with them.

This is a play about ideas, about art, the artistic drive, ageing, reminiscence, the ethics of biography and privacy and about the process of drama. There’s no dramatic drive towards a resolution of a problem, just a celebration of life and an on-going questioning of what’s important. It’s not a play for the prudish.

On Press Night the production almost sold-out the massive Lyric theatre, while The Library Theatre’s superb production of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ occupied the more intimate Quays theatre space. Two plays by living playwrights that repay thoughtful audiences. The Lowry’s celebrating its tenth birthday this year; this is an excellent way to celebrate.

The Habit of Art is at The Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford Quays, until Saturday 9th October

Arcadia is at The Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford Quays, also until Saturday 9th October, but with a 7.15 starting time for evening performances

Box Office: 0843 2086005 or www.thelowry.com

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