I have a confession to make: I may finally have OD’d on Alan Bennett.
Having reached this conclusion two days before Christmas, when I descended upon the National Theatre with all my usual dark intentions for their bookshop and emerged two hours later from the new Lyttleton production of The Habit of Art with yet another stream of camply caustic one-liners to wish I’d written, I found myself, as first, not quite sure of how to proceed.
The problems, as I saw them, were threefold.
Firstly: The charm Alan Bennett held for me had apparently reached such heights that it now seemed positively usual to find myself laughing at jokes about Radio Oxford and old men peeing in the sink.
Secondly: It didn’t matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be able to come up with the simple genius of a line like “Tolkein’s writing again. More fucking elves.”, even if I slaved for a decade, so I might as well give up and get a job at Subway.
Thirdly: Surely no one was supposed to feel quite such a familiar and comfortable buzz at the prospect of yet another round of cardigans, bag ladies, Auden references, lonely homosexuals and parts quite obviously written for Russell Tovey (and yet, for reasons that can only be blamed on Russell T Davies, not played by him)?
It was this third problem which, unpleasant though it actually wasn’t as a viewing sensation, nonetheless gave me pause. Thinking back over the evening’s entertainment, and even bypassing the irrefutable amount I had enjoyed myself, the notion still remained; humming guiltily somewhere between childhood memories of Bennett’s Wind in the Willows and the six hundred or so times I had seen the first cast of The History Boys in performance at the National. The notion that I had seen it all before.
The Habit of Art, at least for Bennett, is a complex mess of old and new. Focussing on an imagined reconciliation between the poet W.H. Auden (Richard Griffiths) and composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) after a twenty-year separation, Bennett’s wickedly clever comedy oscillates between the discussions had between the two famous men and the exasperated actors and crew actually trying to stage them. Britten is facing a creative crisis with the composition of “Death in Venice” and wants Auden’s advice with the libretto; the entire “play” then focussing on Auden’s anticipation of this momentous visit and the eventual awkwardness as the two finally meet. We are watching, throughout, a play within a play, a set within a set.
Auden and Britten interact on an island in the centre of a rehearsal room, whilst the crew populates the outside edges, commenting and heckling and looking inwards as we look in on them. Auden awaits the arrival of Britten in squalid university rooms, receiving a visit from a rent boy and keeping a compulsive eye on the time whilst, upstage, Britten sits at a piano, accompanying a young treble with many a helpful shout: “Lift your little pinkie! It’s meant to sound horrid. This is modern music.”. Interrupting at intervals are the scripted narrations of Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), the biographer of both men, and the increasingly exasperated interjections of the stage crew, including Frances De La Tour as the harried stage manager and Elliot Levey as the playwright no one really wants around; all trying make sense of a play even more convoluted than the one we are watching.
This conceit in itself is refreshing, the in-joke created immediate: the play being rehearsed before us is awful. An experimental mess of biography, soliloquy and new-wave nonsense; Auden and Britten are surrounded by spectacular moments of theatrical cobblers – the assistant stage manager (John Heffernan) steps in with wonderful drollery and deep embarrassment to read in for a missing actor, claiming to be “Auden’s Chair” and later, “One of Auden’s Wrinkles”, declaiming in hilariously highfaluting verse, whilst the surrounding actors and stage crew either fall about laughing or surrender to despair. Everyone involved, not least the “actors” playing Auden and Britten, seems to have their own idea of how the play should go. Fitz, who is Auden, it critical and believes that it is only Auden’s work that should matter, whilst Henry, who is gay and plays Britten, is far more concerned with the artists themselves and the importance of their sexuality. The matter of where to end is a subject of great contention – Fitz wants to read Auden’s poem on the death of Yeats and leave it at that, but the actor playing the rent boy has more questions to be answered. How can one reconcile art with life and secrecy with openness? Why does no one write about rent boys, and only the famous men they serve?
The entire production is built on art (and artifice): “I’m a device!” wails the “actor” playing Carpenter in one particularly comic climax, but in truth, everything Bennett sets before us is technical smoke and mirrors. The make-believe set, the “stage crew”, the squabbling, even the imagined reconciliation, are all just devices. The writer and composer may sit and discuss art in their isolated island of a college room, but all around them, art, or a kind of chaos resembling art, is being created. The “Habit of Art”, as Auden muses, is its endless, unstoppable creation; the nervous energy of constant turmoil that runs through the unfinished play, the need to keep on and continue until you run out of time. Time is a constant spectre here; Britten is dying, Auden is a compulsive timekeeper, and the actor playing him is on a similarly tight schedule; he’s doing a voiceover for Tesco’s at four.
All this is ingenious, as well as eminently enjoyable, and yet the fact still remains that there do seem to be certain areas and topics of discussion which, to the average Bennett fan, may be starting to wear a little thin. With Griffiths having stepped in to fill a role originally intended for Michael Gambon, the shadow cast by his Hector from The History Boys, whilst perhaps unintentional, is still long. Auden, already one of Bennet’s stock figures, is a Hector of sorts – “a sad life, but not unappreciated” – and Bennett, too, seems to identify with him, although as ever, there are touches of Bennett everywhere. Everywhere, too, are further stalwarts of Bennett’s oeuvre – cynical matriarchs and candid young men. Britten is a sympathetic character, but he likes to touch the choirboys after practice. Time, as well, seems to be becoming something of a fixture where Bennett is concerned, and the need always to be doing something. The play whizzes by in a chaotic flurry and we are left, at the end, pondering whether anything has really been completed, and whether there shouldn’t still be more to tell; but then again, if there is, Bennett is sure to cover it next time round. Bennett, it seems, has fallen into his own habit of art; and though I may have to stop my ears the very next time he brings up Auden, Sheffield or Raymond Huntley, I still say long may it last.