Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Alan Bennett The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre Productions Lowry Quays, Salford 12 November 2018 to 17 November 2018
The Habit of Art was almost new eight years ago when the touring version of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production came to The Lowry’s big stage. Now it’s brought here by The Original Theatre Company and others in a tour aided by Stage One – and, now directed by Philip Franks and starring Matthew Kelly and David Yelland, it’s still a must-see.
It was a fascinating chunk of Alan Bennett whimsy to begin with. Not just imagining a scenario based on real historical figures, in a place he knew well (Oxford in the early 1970s wasn’t much different from the university he inhabited 10 years before), but wrapping it up as a play-within-a-play, because we see a rehearsal of a supposed new work called Caliban’s Day, and that gives him plentiful opportunities for truthful jokes about the theatre and those who make it.
The ‘play’ itself, however, portrays a meeting (which never happened – but never mind, that didn’t stop Schiller writing Maria Stuart) between the louche and ageing W H Auden, resident in Christ Church lodgings and still Professor of Poetry at the university, and Benjamin Britten, frail and physically failing, who has just embarked on his last opera, Death in Venice. A third actual person, Humphrey Carpenter (son of the Bishop of Oxford, Harry Carpenter), who really did write biographies of both the other two, holds the story together, first by interviewing them for Radio Oxford and then hovering around as a commentator on the invented encounter.
If it had stood on its own, that ‘play’ – whose author is present for the rehearsal – would have had all-too-obvious weaknesses, but Bennett presents it as something to be judged by us anyway, and has Neil (the author) obsessed by the role he created for Tim, a rent boy who calls to service Mr Auden’s priapic needs, seeing him as a Caliban to the elderly artist pair.
He also allows each of the four ‘actors’ to be themselves as well as the characters they portray, a duality into which both Matthew Kelly and David Yelland enter with skill and success, each varying his voice slightly, but not too much, as he comes in and out of character. At times you’re not quite sure whether it’s the actor or the supposed great artistic creator you’re witnessing.
John Wark, who plays the actor playing Humphrey Carpenter, has a different task, as Bennett gives him some pathetic solo outbursts and a nonsensical comedy turn to open the second Act – it brightens things up but is probably there to hide what could otherwise have been a pretty unkind portrayal of a fellow-writer. Benjamin Chandler, as the actor playing the rent boy, keeps both on a similar level.
Around these we have the company stage manager, the motherly Kay (Veronica Roberts, very nicely done), the ASM (Alexandra Guelff) and of course the author (Robert Mountford).
It’s a play for the well-read, as we see Auden pointing out that he married Thomas Mann’s daughter to get her away from the Nazis, and the two old boys discuss the nature of art and life with copious name-dropping. But that’s Alan Bennett for you: heady stuff.
In this production, with the ASM female, there’s no longer a need for child actors to portray the roles of Britten’s boy sopranos, as Alexandra Guelff pretends to stand in for them. Other than that, and the present-day clothing and laptop for the rehearsal, it’s physically not unlike its incarnation in 2010.
Some resonances are, however, very different. I recall the Carpenter character coming over as himself as an Alan Bennett type then, but not so here. On the other hand, Matthew Kelly makes his ‘Auden’ (and his ageing thespian) much more than two old bores, while David Yelland’s Britten-cum-steady actor not only catches the repressed paedophilia and ambiguous nature of each respectively, but also seems interestingly well observed as a study of a musician. For those virtuoso portrayals, and quality all round, this is a performance to treasure.