The Habit Of Art – May 2010


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Saturday 15th May 2010

At last we made it! We had to miss an earlier performance due to ill health or travel problems or somesuch, so I was very glad to get here today. This is probably the best thing we’ve seen this year so far, almost 10/10, but unfortunately it not only included some of Auden’s poetry (not a fan) but the format is a play within a play, where the fictional author’s work is meant to have some less good bits in it, such as talking furniture, talking facial creases, etc. These were fine up to a point, and did give us some very good laughs, but they do have the drawback of being not very good, and however much I put them in quotation marks they still tend to lower the standard. There were a few other areas that became unnecessarily dull as well, but overall the experience was very great fun.

The set was excellent. I’ve never been in a rehearsal room at the National, but the design looked very similar to the workshops which we saw on a backstage tour. Left and back walls were white brick, apart from an area of black panels in the back wall, while the right wall was wooden strips. The fictional play’s set was mocked up in the middle – small raked area with desk, two chairs, piano behind, door to the right of that, kitchen area to the left (bits were labelled ‘fridge’ and cooker’), bed raised up behind piano, and an upper level on the left with a grand piano and chair – destined for the Cottesloe, then. Around this ‘set’ there were several chairs front left, and a string of desks to the right, including a keyboard. The ‘real’ sink was against the left wall, behind the entrance door. Even the ceiling lights were authentic. And there were all sorts of books and other junk cluttering up the ‘set’.

The performance started early, with the ASM arriving first to set things up. The audience pretty much ignored this, so I was glad when they finally twigged that we were under way and shut up in time for us to hear the dialogue. The second half was much the same, with cast members arriving back in the rehearsal room in dribs and drabs, and chatting away to each other. The audience were a bit more alert second time around, thank goodness.

The play within the play concerned a meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten after a gap of some thirty years in which they discussed, amongst other things, Britten’s next project, an opera based on Death In Venice, the Thomas Mann novel. It also covered Auden’s complete lack of hygiene, his preference for sucking off rent boys to a very strict schedule, and various other musings on the lives of these and other famous men. We got the inevitable ‘more fucking elves’ comment about Tolkien’s work, and of course the music was largely Britten’s, although Show Me The Way To Go Home also featured.

The contextual play allowed for frequent interruptions to question the facts, the dialogue, the staging, etc., and meant that a good deal of extra information could be brought out without having to double-dramatise it. And there was all the fun of watching a ‘rehearsal’ in progress, with many wry observations on the way these things work, the way actors behave, the diplomacy skills required to keep it all on track (Frances de la Tour was excellent as the stage manager) and the way the National itself operates. For example, two of the actors couldn’t make the rehearsal because they were in the Chekov matinee, although one of them did turn up during the interval chit-chat on stage in full Russian peasant gear.

The performances were, as usual, excellent, with many lovely touches. Adrian Scarborough’s actor character, who played Carpenter, the biographer of both Auden and Britten, was deeply distressed to find out that his part was simply a dramatic device, and his attempt to bring out more of Carpenter’s background by dressing up and singing a song about the wind made for a great start to the second half. Alex Jennings’ character Henry contributed some interesting revelations about his time as a rent boy when he was studying at RADA, thinly disguised as the experiences of ‘a friend’, while Elliot Levey as the author gave Bennett a chance to poke fun at the writer’s lack of authority in the rehearsal room. All good fun, and worth the wait to see it.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

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