Revival of Bennett play Habit of Art is a masterpiece

Matthew Kelly and David Yelland in the Habit of Art
Matthew Kelly and David Yelland in the Habit of Art

Plays about the theatre can be extremely boring but not if the play is from the pen of acclaimed Yorkshire playwright Alan Bennett.

The Habit of Art was first staged in 2009 and has started its first revival tour in York, birthplace of poet WH Auden.

The play is centered on a fictional meeting between Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

Written in the framework of a play-within-a-play it is extremely funny, yet at the same time poignant and deeply moving. It tackles friendship, betrayal, loneliness, age degeneration, fear and sexuality alongside survival and the emotional cost of creativity.

Yet, despite this complex structure, the whole thing is a wonderfully enjoyable experience. We are watching a rehearsal of a play called Caliban’s Day that inspired Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror.

The director is absent, the frustrated author is overseeing the rehearsal with help from the mumsy stage manager. The scenes are constantly interrupted by prompts, arguments and thespians wanting to put their own spin on their parts.

Meanwhile, Fitz playing Auden, can’t remember his lines, doesn’t like how Auden is portrayed in the play and moreover is anxious to finish on time to get to a supermarket voice over job.

The play is set in the grubby, cluttered Oxford lodgings of Auden a year before his death in 1972.

He is frail with disgusting habits like peeing in the sink, using one piece of toilet paper and mistakes a respectable journalist from the BBC for the rent boy he is expecting.

In contrast an immaculate, fastidious Britten (Henry), is auditioning boys nearby for his opera Death in Venice and arrives unexpectedly – their first meeting after 25 years after falling out about their opera Paul Bunyan.

The encounter between the two men is so well written. It explores to the full the difference in their temperments. Britten is calm and restrained whilst Auden is an intellectual bully.

Bennett’s masterful script and Philip Franks expert direction balance both the rehearsal and the duologue between Auden and Britten magnificently.

Matthew Kelly as Auden and Fitz gives an amazing performance and drives the play. Kelly’s characterisation contrasts beautifully with David Yelland’s totally believable portrayal of Britten.

With a very strong supporting cast The Habit of Art must surely be set for a record-breaking tour.

It is on at York Theatre Royal until Saturday September 8.

Tickets: 01904 623568