There is something oddly familiar with Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art now playing at the National Theatre. It has nothing to do with Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, directing another of Bennett’s plays, the last being The History Boys at the National again. It has nothing to do with the subject matter either, a look into the relationship and lives of W H Auden and Benjamin Britten.
No, the reason The Habit of Art is so familiar lies in the content of the play, a rehearsal room, the setting for Bennetts new piece. The play is a play within a play, and the play happens to be towards the end of rehearsal period. (Still following?) The Lytteltons stage is thus the rehearsal room, with the bare bones of a set constructed, and slightly furnished. A small kitchen area is on one side of the stage, and on the other a series of desks, chairs, keyboard and scripts.
The lighting is simple, even the design evokes the reaction that this is all too familiar. Any person who works in theatre, or has had the opportunity to sit in a rehearsal room during a rehearsal will see the familiarities here, and it is executed marvelously. The witty banter between the actors, the assistant stage manager running around setting props and prompting lines, yes, this is all too familiar to me.
There is a slight concern then that, because of the setting of the play, that Bennett has excluded a whole sector of his audience who perhaps don’t know the workings of the theatre and the rehearsal room, yet this clearly is not the case. I might have been chuckling to myself at theatre related jokes, but equally these jokes transferred easily to the audience with great reception.
Richard Griffiths is as always on top form in this. Even the subject matter of playing Auden as a sexually driven, yet equally as boring man is done perfectly. I never thought I’d reach the day when I would find it amusing to listen to Griffiths telling of his delights of enjoying a mans genitals and pleasuring him in such a manner as I heard in The Habit of Art.
The storyline of the play (within the play) is an interesting one, and I do say this in a tone of – I’m not quite sure I like it. However, that’s not the point. For the storyline of the play, is actually that of the rehearsal room, it is the breaking out of character to criticise the playwrights words. It’s the getting thrown off your lines because an actor has yet to have their movement blocked for their short monologues.
What is brilliant about The Habit of Art is Bennetts ability to go, yes I am a playwright, I write, but sometimes we don’t always get it right. And yes, there are actors, who just act, how easy that must be! The director disappears, but the show goes on. It is Bennetts sense of understanding the world he is writing for. He openly mocks himself as a playwright by having a playwright as a character within his play, putting the actors off their lines and arguing with rewrites. Yet equally Bennett makes wise comments upon theatre and actors, comparing them to a solider, they are afraid.
There are some other remarkable people to mention in The Habit of Art, pretty much all the actors are strong, funny and play the parts excellently. Frances de la Tour is wonderful, playing the balancing act between the cast and the creatives. The peace maker in the rehearsal room. She is cool and equally demanding too with her outbursts of “On, go on”, every time the action stops due to casual talking. Alex Jennings plays the role of the composer Benjamin Britten, and whilst he wasn’t someone who greatly stood out for me, his emotional engagement with his story did pluck at my heart strings slightly.
Adrian Scarborough as the biographer Humphrey Carpenter, has some beautifully comic lines, including his exclamation that he is nothing but a “device” in the play. This certainly racked up a few laughs at the National, for most certainly this character is only a device being used by Bennett or rather the playwright in the play to tell the winding stories of Auden and Britten.
It is moments such as this that reminds us once again that Alan Bennett is a master of a playwright, a living monument to all things good about theatre and his ability to write about situations and characters. Witty, heart-warming, and fantastically funny, that is The Habit of Art for me.
The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett is playing at the National Theatre and booking until April 2010. New tickets to be released shortly so check the National Theatre website for details.