Is Alan Bennett getting concerned with coming to the end of his distinguished career? His new play The Habit Of Art would certainly suggest so.
Both central characters, the poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, are at the wrong end of their illustrious artistic careers, facing crises of confidence about the work they are creating. Is it groundbreaking any more? Is it fashionable? Or is it just habit?
But there is more to suggest Bennett has himself in mind when he put pen to paper. The Habit Of Art is a play about a play; the scenes enacted on stage are set in a Bob Crowley-designed National Theatre rehearsal room, where the cast and crew are preparing a new show about the two great artists. The invented piece’s playwright, concerned with every cut of his text, every misunderstanding of his intention, is preoccupied with the ending of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Bard’s public sign-off to his audiences.
Michael Gambon was originally due to have played central character Fitz, the actor playing WH Auden in the play within the play, Caliban’s Day. He had to withdraw due to ill health, but having seen Richard Griffiths play the part last night, it is hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role; he is cynical and worn as Fitz, arrogant and erudite as Auden.
Alex Jennings is softer and more frail as Britten, wry and camp as actor Henry, while Frances de la Tour as stage manager Kay, who massages each and every personality in an attempt to survive the rehearsal, neatly and quietly steals much of the audience’s sympathy.
Mixing rent boys with poetry and opera, Bennett blends high brow discussion of art and the struggle to continue creating great works with delightful filth to achieve pitch perfect comic moments. His observations of life in a rehearsal room prove both insightful and amusing, and he isn’t shy of poking fun at bad playwriting and seat-squirmingly awful poetry.
If he is considering the end of his artistic career, The Habit Of Art would see the popular, intelligent playwright go out on a high. But when you are still creating great works, why not carry on?