Review: The Habit of Art, Theatre Royal, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The Habit Of Art, Theatre Royal, Newcastle:

Alan Bennett takes the easy option in his follow-up to The History Boys:

Here we go again. Another Alan Bennett play, presented by the National Theatre (of the UK), directed by Nicholas Hytner (artistic director of that esteemed institution), and packed off on its travels around the British provinces with the effusive praise of the London critics ringing in its ears. Sad to say, like his vastly overrated opus, The History Boys, Bennett’s latest drama, The Habit Of Art (ostensibly a play about the relationship between Benjamin Britten and WH Auden), is another exasperating case of a writer of undeniable ability taking to his theatrical easy chair.

The very conceit of the piece – a play-within-a-play, set in a rehearsal room in the National Theatre – should set alarm bells ringing. If Bennett wants to imagine Britten – who is, in the early 1970s, struggling with the libretto for his final opera, Death In Venice – visiting his old friend Auden at his Oxford University lodgings, why doesn’t he simply do so?

Of course, the adoring legions of Bennettites will argue that, by locating the imagined meeting within another play, by a non-existent playwright, the great author has executed a masterstroke, at once distancing himself from the words he has put in the mouths of the composer and the poet, and rendering the highly selective world of biography even more doubtful. The real reason for what is, in fact, a very simple theatrical device is, I suspect, somewhat more prosaic.

The rehearsal room provides Bennett, assiduous middlebrow that he is, with ample opportunity for light comedy, lest the contemplation of Britten and Auden in the autumn of their years proves a little bitter for our tastes.

For instance, the fragile ego of Donald (Matthew Cottle) – the actor playing Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of Britten and Auden – leads him to attempt to garner more sympathy for his multi-talented character by, as was Carpenter’s wont, getting up in cabaret drag. The script, by a stereotypically arrogant-yet-self-doubting young writer named Neil (Simon Bubb), is full of ludicrous ideas, such as Auden’s furniture speaking revelatory poetry in bad rhyme. Just how he could write such adolescent tosh alongside the perfectly well-judged dialogue between the two artists is never explained.

This is all pretty disingenuous. Bennett can put the silliest aspects of the Britten/Auden drama down to the failings of a fictitious playwright. However, it is Bennett, of course, who has written characters – not least the wretched young author – who are two-dimensional, at best. Likewise, the to-ing and fro-ing between the seamier sides of Britten and Auden’s lives (the composer’s attraction to young boys, the poet’s filthy personal habits, including urinating in the sink), and their contemplations on art and friendship.

The imagined writer defends the “warts-and-all” approach to biography, whereas Bennett, it seems, stands by the more elevated subjects himself. In fairness, the humour has its moments – an acerbic comment by Auden about a new book by Tolkien (“more fucking elves, I suppose”) is a delight, for instance – but, given Bennett’s early collaborations with comic geniuses such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the play’s comedic strike rate is not high.

The only really dramatic possibility offered by the play-within-a-play format lies in the common experience of the character of Stuart (a rentboy, played by Luke Norris, employed by Auden, played by Desmond Barrit) and Henry (the fine Malcolm Sinclair’s fictional actor, who, in turn, plays Britten). Henry, it transpires, sold sex as a hard-up student. Here Bennett’s penchant for sentimentality threatens to topple over into something more substantial, but, sadly, to invert Kenneth Tynan’s observation on Waiting For Godot, pity the critic who seeks the play’s hidden depths, for it is all surface.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on 22 November 2010

© Mark Brown

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