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A CurtainUp London Review
The Habit of Art
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.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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