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Alan Bennett's latest play presents a challenge

PUBLISHED: 15:45 09 December 2009 | UPDATED: 13:11 11 August 2010

The National Theatre 2009, The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

The National Theatre 2009, The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

THE Habit of Art, Alan Bennett s new play at The National Theatre, is a beautifully acted, funny and multi-layered production based around a fictional meeting of two creative greats: W H Auden and Benjamin Britten. It is 1972 and poet Auden, now in his 60

THE Habit of Art, Alan Bennett's new play at The National Theatre, is a beautifully acted, funny and multi-layered production based around a fictional meeting of two creative greats: W H Auden and Benjamin Britten.

It is 1972 and poet Auden, now in his 60s, is living in a chaotic room, teeming with books and dirty dishes, at Oxford University.

One day he receives a visit from his former friend and collaborator, composer Britten, who he hasn't seen for more than 20 years.

What follows is an imagined discussion between the two ageing men about - amongst other things - growing old, sexuality (both men are gay at a time when homosexuality has only just become legal) creativity and persisting with art even when the passion has gone (hence the title Habit of Art.)

The meeting - and this is where it gets a little complicated - is actually set within a play being rehearsed by a group of actors at the National Theatre.

So throughout Auden and Britten's discussion there are lots of humorous interruptions from a stage manager, a playwright, and the actors themselves as they forget their lines/offer their own opinion on the script etc.

The lack of any real plot and the chaotic nature of the play does leave the audience somewhat emotionally detached, but the witty dialogue, which is full of Bennett-esque one liners keeps you entertained from start to finish.

Some of the humour revolves around Auden's famously wrinkly face. At one point the poet tells a visiting callboy: "It's been said that nowadays my face resembles a scrotum."

The extroverted and sometimes bullying Auden is played brilliantly by Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings offers an equally accomplished performance as the restrained and prim Britten.

Praise should also be given to Frances De La Tour, who does a great job as the long-suffering, but always encouraging, stage manager Kay.

The Habit of Art may not have the popular appeal of Bennett's last play, the smash hit History Boys, which has since been made into a film.

But it is still a very enjoyable piece of work which offers an interesting perspective on a whole host of subjects, including the lives of two very talented but sometimes troubled men.


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