FringeReview UK 2018
Philip Franks helms this revival of the 2009 play premiered at the National. Adrian Linford’s scattered and horribly convincing Brewhouse interior at Christ Church Oxford. Johanna Town’s lighting plays deftly with several levels as this isn’t quite the shambolic set it pretends to be. Max Pappenheim’s sound pipes Britten’s youthful Simple Symphony. Till September 15th and touring.
Seventy-five when he wrote it, you’d hardly be surprised that for once Alan Bennett himself might just peep through in The Habit of Art, his 2009 play about the sixty-somethings composer Benjamin Britten and poet W. H. Auden meeting again after thirty years in 1972, brokered by Radio Oxford interviewer Humphrey Carpenter.
Bennett does though in what’s painfully cut out and re-introduced in bleeding chunks in his Introduction to his playtext, something Bennett’s never done; it’s personal. And in this new touring version by The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal, and Ghost Theatre Company, some of that original production too – bits that 2009’s director Nick Hytner let through – are gone as well. All those jokes – within a final speech – about the National, the place where the original audience laughed loudest, have had to go. Especially now the Cottesloe’s changed its name.
So why see this fiction-fleeced, fleet production, full of facts certainly, about something which avowedly never happened? Because it’s an itchy masterpiece. The very pain this play caused its author, somehow freights it with the edginess and sheer discomfort of its barnacled protagonists; it means Bennett’s brilliance is put on its mettle. None of the cosiness that makes The History Boys so attractive yet not absolutely believable, is here. Bennett’s telegraphic one-liners, glancing apercus only some will get, many jokes which everyone gets, makes for his most multi-layered work before the current Alleluja!. And one of his greatest.
The immensely assured Philip Franks helms this production, with Adrian Linford’s scattered and horribly convincing Brewhouse interior at Christ Church Oxford, Auden’s messy lair where bowls for urination vie with decanters of sherry and books, where in an inset interior lurks an upright piano, both Auden’s and occasionally a practice room where Britten is trying out choirboys for their voices.
Johanna Town’s lighting plays deftly with several levels as this isn’t quite the shambolic set it pretends to be. Max Pappenheim’s sound pipes Britten’s youthful Simple Symphony (the ‘Playful Pizzicato’) as you’d expect. That isn’t what it seems either. Over the wall lurks the College’s Dean. ‘Past sixty, it’s the young I hope to shock’ says Auden to his rent boy Stuart. Bennett’s daring all ages not to be. It isn’t the point but it’s very funny.
But there’s an ASM (Alexandra Guelff, also a tunefully auditioning choirboy), Kay, the Stage Manager (Veronica Roberts), Robert Mountford as Neil the author of Caliban’s Day. Auden’s Matthew Kelly, but he’s often called Fitz here; John Wark’s Donald is also Humphrey Carpenter, and David Yelland’s urbane Henry, who’s Britten. Tim, aka rent boy Stuart is played by Benjamin Chandler. The cast (if you include Guelff’s doubled choirboy) has been cut by six. It makes for less clutter; nothing essential is lost.
So it’s Caliban’s Day in rehearsal, within The Habit of Art. We’ve been seeing play-within-plays since The Spanish Tragedy. So it’s as much about theatre-makers as poets and composers. The irritating author Neil – and he’s very precious, is liable to upset actors, themselves touchy, most believing themselves the centre of the action.
In the midst of this Kay who’s far closer to understanding them all than they realise, reveals the director’s in Leeds, just as the author’s down from Newcastle and off somewhere else. The director’s notes via Kay are telling us what’s just been cut. Why weren’t we told? Neil’s hissy-fitting just as Fitz would already prefer his booked Tesco’s coffee ad at six ‘…”it comes with a hint of the hacienda.” Now that is proper acting.’
The frenetic doubling settles. Mountford’s petulant Neil vetoes Donald’s plea for Carpenter’s role to be expanded, and Wark (that’s ‘Donald’) winces resentment. After all he’s the explainer, and the consciousness of the play – the real Radio 3 star Carpenter being the biographer of both – and within whose brain this work’s possible. It’s that ‘it’s about this nurse’ moment as Stoppard in Shakespeare in Love charmingly shows how each actor thinks it’s about their character.
Except that Bennett’s author has to fight back a rationale, and Wark’s hurt persona, switching back to Carpenter-mode hovers throbbing throughout. It’s the same for Stuart, the character, though not Tim who plays him – Chandler is excellent at dividing easy-going Tim from apparently easy-going rent-boy Stuart, whose provenance is attested by the ‘Henry’ of Yelland, with RADA students in the 70s doing exactly the same. Chandler manages Stuart’s outbursts, their sudden petulance, neatly too. ‘I want to figure’ he tells Fitz’s Auden.
Throughout Franks’ direction makes it clear, as Bennett does, who’s in what role. It’s a bit more layered than for instance The Play That Goes Wrong, seen recently here, but like that work, you’re never in doubt.
What you’re invited to doubt then believe, is how somehow Neil’s petulant Caliban’s Day with its talking furniture (you’re going to have to see this) and scotched endings (including Fitz’s suggested chop) morphs into the real Habit of Art. For this wonderfully cantankerous, always hedged-in joke of a drama is both profoundly touching and believable.
This truth erupts particularly in the second act, after the false starts and positioning of the first act and the second’s intros. Britten’s not spoken to his old friend for thirty years, after Auden sent a letter telling him exactly what would be become of him, as he boarded a ship to return to the UK with his partner Peter Pears, leaving Auden and Isherwood behind in the US. It’s a famous letter in fact which Yelland’s Britten (played by ‘Henry’) takes out and reads.
Britten and Auden had collaborated with huge success in the 1930s, though less so on their Operetta Paul Bunyan which flopped in the US in 1942. Britten could never abide failure, and he’s famous for corpsing people, never speaking to them again. So why revive me, Auden asks?
Yelland’s urbane upright slightly stuffy Britten is a thoroughly believable OM, surrounded by adoring fans as Auden predicted, and never allowing criticism near him. Kelly’s been throughout a mix of petulant, mock-pompous, urbane, punctilious (six pm means too late for Stuart’s fellatio, or even his own) and finally moving Auden, the Fitz character dropping away as the man who was in love with Britten shows his reignited feelings and offers to help.
Because Britten needs help. Everyone’s accusing him of repeating himself, lost innocence yet again, when in fact it’s the older Aschenbach in his setting of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice who’s innocent. The boy Tazio has to be progressively aged from eleven (the Mann source) through fourteen (Mann’s story) to sixteen. Myfanwy Piper’s supplied the libretto, and even she doesn’t like it. Auden of course leaps to take over, after all Thomas Mann was his father-in-law as he married Mann’s daughter to get her out of Germany. He loves the idea. And Britten again feels colonised. As Bennett quotes from himself in an excised section: ‘And Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Wystan did.’
Bennett ensures we get Auden’s incessant self-repetition too. Thomas Mann was his father-in-law. Britten doesn’t comment, but his actor Henry notes of Auden’s Fitz: ‘if he forgets, he’s playing someone who does forget. They’ll think he’s inspired. Whereas I, who know every plodding word, will be thought to have turned in my usual efficient performance.’ Is it just an irony that the very first Fitz couldn’t go on because he couldn’t remember his lines? The more you look, the more you see everything Bennett’s learned about theatre and art, and his friends there, clapped dense into the single stride of one play.
Old rivalries, old love, particularly on Auden’s side, returns. They’re both about to be memorialised and death isn’t far off for either. Britten has revivified a corpse, what will the corpse do? What will he let it do?
And enveloping this is the maelstrom of arguments, rewrites, actors intent on cutting in or cutting up, Donald the Carpenter figure (and he really was a cultural polymath) thinking he hasn’t yet ‘got’ Carpenter, the insecurities environing everyone, except George the ASM – Guelff’s can-do character lights up like a cheery sparkler on a November day – and of course Kay.
Kay keeps it somehow together, and her great speech at the end, even shorn of its NT jokes, is both a moving climax and deconstruction as she tells a wiser Neil about the past, and puts him in his place, its place perhaps, gently. Roberts manages her deliberately crumpled-status poise with weary, wryly amused dignity. Both in her coping persona and rare shafts of only slightly les guarded confiding to Neil, and gently dealing with actors, you feel something of a homage to the best Stage Managers everywhere has finally been honoured. And the final lines own a quietly miraculous importunity.
It’s a triumphant revival; the trimming makes it more accessible, more likely to be revived. There’s not a weak link here; all performances are exemplary, and the leads make me think slightly differently about the play. I recall the original perhaps slowing a little in the final moments between Auden and Britten, a valedictory amplitude maybe; but that might simply be nine years refraction.
Mostly, Franks and has team have stamped their own pace and dignity on a play that in its layering and quizzical jokes about art, might have seemed rarified. That’s despite the urinating jokes, despite the ‘shall I strip?’ moments and sexual reminiscence, or the slip into irrelevance: Auden’s desperate desire for a project that speaks to so many from their sixties onwards. It’s not just about those with the habit of art or age about them. It’s against oblivion, something we all fight. If you’re reading this you care about such things. Do see it.