Alan Bennett, arguably the nation's favourite playwright, is back at The National and back in exceptionally fine form with a brand new play which turns out to be part comic treat and part examination of the insecurities of great artists.
The basic concept for this new work isn't at all new, in fact it's quite a well-worn device. Essentially, we witness the rehearsal of a new play entitled 'Caliban's Day' being staged at the National Theatre. In effect, then, it's a play within a play. But this gives Bennett the chance to weave together his knowledge of actors (and playwrights) and their foibles, and a fictitious meeting between two creative greats – the poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.
The action starts with the actors arriving for a rehearsal. There's the typical kind of banter you would expect from actors. Richard Griffiths as W. H. Auden (and actor Fitz) has a prolonged and humorous moan about not being the one asked to bring cake for rehearsals. After that, we're into the play proper which begins with the arrival of Auden's potential biographer who is initially mistaken for a rent boy.
In the first half there are exceptionally funny moments as the actors discuss their roles and motivation. For example, when faced with a decision as to whether the rent boy should remove his clothes, there follows a discussion about penises and the rent boy's penis in particular. To conclude the discussion, stage manager Kay says “We'll have a little look at that tomorrow”.
The real meat of this play, however, is reserved for the second half. Though it starts off with a scene that seems more akin to panto, it quickly gets into serious gear when Auden and Britten meet at Auden's dishevelled house and where we discover an Auden desperate to keep working at any cost, and a terrified Britten who seems like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights. It's an immensely moving and poignant scene, masterfully written.
Though the basic device employed in this play isn't very novel, what makes the play distinctive and really work is Bennett's perceptive writing and the exceptional acting from the entire company. Though Richard Griffiths is first-rate in the lead as the poet whose sexual appetite is chained to time, I particularly enjoyed Alex Jennings performance playing, in effect, three roles and moving fluidly and effortlessly between them. Jennings' Britten is timid, almost withdrawn and contrasts perfectly with Griffiths's more dominant Auden. But there's also great support from the ever-excellent Frances De la Tour as the weary stage manager who just wants to get through the rehearsal but has to mother and cosset the actors in order to do so. Stephen Wight is also impressive as the chirpy rent boy.
Apart from Alan Bennett's flair for humour, he also has the knack of making ordinary people seem greater than they are, and revealing important people as being ordinarily human like the rest of us. In this case, we see two great artists – Auden and Britten – with the insecurities that every one of us faces from time to time. With Auden, it's the fear of not being able to work, and with Britten it's the fear of being exposed. And though 'The Habit of Art' covers a variety of issues – sexuality and creativity, to name just a couple – the essential theme which runs right the way through the piece is fear.
Already slated for a tour, 'The Habit of Art' looks like being another big winner for Bennett and I'd be surprised if we didn't see a transfer to another West End venue and a radio version as with Bennett's previous hit 'The History Boys'. Certainly, 'The Habit of Art' has significant audience appeal in terms of both the comedy and the engrossing performances. Whether you're an ardent Bennett fan or not, it's pretty much unmissable.
"Nicholas Hytner directs with an unerring instinct for the volatile nature of the material in a cracking production that flirtatiously keeps the audience up to speed with the outrageous amount of information and allusion."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Absolute cracker, often wonderfully and sometimes filthily funny (this is not a show for the prudish), but also deeply and unexpectedly moving."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Satirical, serious and self-indulgent, sometimes all at the same time."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"The play has the characteristic Bennett mix of wit and wistfulness...A play that could easily seem tricksy is also given a superbly fluid production by Nicholas Hytner and is beautifully acted."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"So much of The Habit of Art is so engaging, it seems churlish to point out its basic problem: which is that even the excellence of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings can’t stop one feeling that Bennett doesn’t fully trust his material. He isn’t confident that his portraiture can sustain a full-length play...the play lacks dramatic tension."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"It’s funny, and sometimes brilliantly so, but strangely uninvolving. Although Bennett savours his material, he doesn’t make it sing."
Henry Hitchings' for The Evening Standard