Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” is based on topics of which he has enormous experience: playwriting and the world of theatre itself, fame, and the private lives and loves of artists. It’s about sexual relationships between men in an era of legal repression of homosexuality, and about aging and the passing of time. It’s about loyalty to old friends and fear of loss and death, and about the way that an artist can’t give up “the habit of art”, however much he has had to debase or trivialise it in order to earn a living or cater to the expectations of the public as a “national treasure”.
Set behind the scenes on the stage of a provincial theatre, we meet the cast and author of “Caliban’s Day”, a play about an interview by Humphrey Carpenter (a respected BBC interviewer in the 1960’s) with the elderly poet WH Auden, and about his relationship with the aging composer Benjamin Britten. The actors struggle in and out of role in a wonderful tapestry woven of reality and art. The author looks on, at times despairingly, for the actors and director are bringing their own interpretations to bear on his play’s agenda.
There are very funny moments, as when John Wark, playing Donald (playing Humphrey Carpenter) rebels because the script doesn’t allow him enough stage presence – “A device, a narrator, that’s all I am in this play!” Donald’s attempt to add to the Carpenter role results in a lovely farcical moment. There’s more subtle humour in the voice, graceful movements and exquisite comic timing of Alexandra Guelff as George, the Assistant Stage Manager. We also smiled at the tact and patience of Company Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) in keeping the rehearsal on track.
The performance of Matthew Kelly as Fitz playing Auden is superb. The roles of fictional actor, Fitz, and the “real” Auden (who in Bennett’s play is, of course, a construct of the fictional author’s play) are entangled and melded, so that Auden, the grand old man of poetry in his era, can also be understood as a fallible, vulnerable artist and flawed human being. Kelly portrays this dual role with tremendous understanding and empathy. David Yelland as Britten is also vulnerable: his elegant manners mask his fear that his illegal sexual liaisons will destroy the reputation that he has built through his art. Both are haunted by time. In the play-within-the play, “Auden” accuses Britten of dishonesty and has no illusions about his own sexual mores. These are demonstrated by his conversations with “Stuart”, called up from an agency. Space prevents my discussing the role of Tim, meta-playing “Stuart” (Benjamin Chandler). Perhaps this is appropriate, for Neil explains that Stuart represents the ordinary folk who long to touch fame but who, in the scheme of things, are left out of history.
This was an evening of absorbing theatre by a master of the medium: thought-provoking, moving, funny, witty, sharp and highly enjoyable.
This review was first published on https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts