Good night at the theatre on Tuesday, with the National Theatre’s touring production of Alan Bennett‘s ‘The habit of art‘. It’s one of those plays where the curtain is open when you walk into the auditorium and someone wanders onto the stage and makes a cup of coffee, straightens things up a bit; a few others come on (one with a bike) and greet one another, stroll around the set a bit, the lights go down and then we get down to business.
So … a play within a play, a run-through in an NT rehearsal room of a played called ‘Caliban’s day’, the idea for which is W.H.Auden‘s feeling that Shakespeare’s ending of ‘The Tempest’ is unsatisfactory – what about Caliban’s story? The core of the play under rehearsal is a fictional visit in Auden’s room at Oxford from Benjamin Britten, with whom he had once collaborated many years previously. They discuss life, love, art, music. All of which is overseen and commented on by a hovering Humphrey Carpenter, the subsequent author of major biographies of both men after they died. Various inanimate objects – like Auden’s chair – have a voice in this, as well as the abstract entities of the poet’s words and the composer’s music, the relative merits and powers of which make an interesting short dialogue in itself. The idea of the great poet pissing in the sink is to be treasured, is it not?
In the run-through the actors and stage team comment on the events of the play, ‘Auden’ struggles with his lines and the wrinkled Auden mask he’s given to wear, the cast do what actors do, interject the stuff from their own lives and so on while the stage manager tries to keep the show on the road, a task not made any easier by the presence of the author, who is less than impressed by what the (absent) director has done to his script. There’s also some depping for a couple of actors involved in a Chekhov matinée, and a lovely moment when one of them comes in full Russian winter costume to see how things are going.
So to say it’s multi-layered is no understatement but Bennett and the cast keep it all together brilliantly. Nor do you need to know too much about Auden and Britten, though it probably helps. This is a play about theatre, art, music, poetry and biography and their making; but it is also, more generally, about attitudes to life, love, reputation, getting old, looking back, carrying on, and the two men’s homosexuality – their experience from another age. We get music too; it’s a wonderful set, Britten playing while a young boy – treble voice unbroken – sings, sat at a grand piano ‘upstairs’ at the back over Auden’s splendidly shambolic college room. As you would expect from Bennett it is witty, intelligent and humane, gentle and yet quietly ferocious. The endings of the two plays are not really related, their closure an open thoughtfulness. It is, quite simply, one of the best things I’ve seen at the theatre; it will give me pause for some time to come. And Desmond Barrit is magnificent as Auden and his actor, who hurries off at the end to do a lucrative advert voiceover.
A few more crossword clues I’ve liked of late, all courtesy bar one of the Guardian (answers below):
- Prosper like Dusty Miller (8) – from Orlando
- Stupid? Certainly not like us! (8) – from Auster
- Which reminds me of the old classic, which is simply: (1,6,3,1,4) –
- Prince in favour of metal supports (10) – Everyman in the Observer
- Strong resistance to break off engagement, might one say (8) – take a bow Paul (who we used to call ‘that bastard Paul’ but we’re coming round to him)
- & Well-directed children (4,3,4) – from the friendly Rufus
Answers: flourish; clueless; I haven’t got a clue; Fortinbras; defiance; Jack and Jill