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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Habit of Art

Death isn't the payment. Death is just the checkout. — WH Auden
The Habit of Art
Richard Griffiths as Fitz (WH Auden), Adrian Scarborough as Donald (Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings as Henry (Benjamin Britten)
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Alan Bennett is England's most loved playwright for his quirky observation and ability to poke gentle fun, to seek out the ridiculous in everyday behaviour. In his latest play, The Habit of Art he explores the sexuality of poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. The first act is so full of gross behaviour and sexual jokes that I found it difficult to sit through all of it without a pained expression on my face and I count myself as no prude. Do I need to know that the poet who penned the most beautiful poetry led the most unaesthetic life peopled by rent boys, a complete lack of hygiene and his peeing in the kitchen sink? There is a quote in the programme from Auden himself, "Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue." We know that the life Mozart led was full of scatological obscenity yet we can listen to his beautiful music and dwell on the higher things in life. Now I will never be able to hear Auden's poetry without remembering his lifestyle. I think I was in the minority as all around me were audience members falling about at the sexual language and jokes about cocks.

Many of my feelings about the way Auden is portrayed in The Habit of Art are expressed by Fitz (Richard Griffiths) the actor playing him in the play within the play, Caliban's Day. Fitz will winge and moan about having to play the smelly Auden leaving out his best bits, the poetry. Adrian Scarborough is Donald the actor playing Auden and Britten's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. Stephen Wight is young actor Tim playing Stuart the rent boy who, on discovering from another donnish client that Auden is famous comes back to finish the job — don't ask!

Bob Crowley's set for The Habit of Art is a shambolic rehearsal studio with a mock up set centre stage showing Auden's cluttered rooms in the Old Brewhouse behind Christ Church, Auden's Oxford College. Up above there is another level to the set where the actor playing Benjamin Britten, Henry (Alex Jennings) is at a grand piano rehearsing a song with a child. To the side are Neil the brooding playwright of the inner play Caliban's Day(Elliot Levey) and Kay the long-suffering Stage Manager played by Frances de la Tour with withering tact and theatre people diplomacy.

The second act concentrates on the fictionalised meeting between Britten and Auden where Auden is trying to persuade Britten to let him write the libretto for the opera of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Britten and Auden discuss their homosexuality and Britten's discretion and restraint, "I don't prey on boys" says Britten. The whole play is laden with theatrical jokes as the writer explains why actors aren't really creative because they don't break new ground like writers or composers but perform, "the same thing again and again". There are some jokes which are rather silly as the playwright gives the furniture a voice because the poet would hear these words, and later there is the personification of Auden's poems and Britten's operas. Standins have to act because the real actors are caught up in a Chekhov matinee. This accounts for the appearance onstage of a character in a greatcoat and tall Russian hat.

Michael Gambon who is ill was meant to play the many wrinkled Auden, as lined as an aged, uncooked potato, described in the play as "scrotum faced" - Richard Griffiths who has taken over bears no physical relation to the poet. Much has been written into the play to explain this and Fitz, Griffiths' actor, tries to act in an ugly rubber mask which is a disaster. Interestingly we never see the director of Caliban's Day because he is out of London.

The cast do very well under the experienced direction of Nicholas Hytner. Elliot Levey's anxious, involved and protective author defending his creation, Frances de la Tour's agonisingly funny trouble shooter and Adrian Scarborough's Donald playing the upset biographer and complaining that "I just feel that I am a DEVICE". This outburst sees the magnificent de la Tour cajoling with Dahling and ending the smoothing over process as Donald exits to wash away the tears with a hollow "Love You". There are so many bristly theatrical egos here. I liked Alex Jennings' straight backed, pillar of the Aldeburgh Festival Britten, especially when he is being hurt about the popularity of composing rivals Walton and Tippet. Richard Griffiths seemed less involved but that is a part of Fitz, his character of course, who is off to record a voice over for supermarket chain Tesco which will be very well paid. I think I liked Richard Griffiths so much in The History Boys because I liked his character Hector so much more than Fitz or Auden.

The Habit of Art (did you notice how much the title sounds like a Stoppard play?) will probably transfer to the West End and definitely to New York but I don't as yet rate it among Bennett's greatest plays.

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The Habit of Art
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour, Adrian Scarborough, Stephen Wight, Elliot Levey
With: Laurence Belcher/Otto Farrant/Toby Graham, Philip childs, John Heffernan, Barbara Kirby, Danny Burns, Martin Chamberlain, Tom Attwood
Design: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Matthew Scott
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 24th January 2010 but sold out apart from day seats. Will continue into February and March 2010 but booking is not yet open.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th November 2009 matinee performance at the Lyttleton, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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