Cut off Your Telephone, WH Auden in Theatres
The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett **** (Four stars)
The Original Theatre Company. Belgrade Theatre Coventry
These days it is somewhat rare to find the world of poetry represented in mainstream, grown-up theatre, so imagine how delighted I was to receive an invitation to see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art which is having a short run at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Written in 2009, this play dramatized a meeting, and the relationship between, two celebrated artists of their time, the composer Benjamin Britten and the poet WH Auden. With this, The Original Theatre Company, the part of Britten was played with great reserve and understatement by the wonderfully accomplished David Yelland while the role of Auden was portrayed with verve and ingenuity by the gregariously charismatic Matthew Kelly.
To be precise, they played actors rehearsing a play which was in turn, written about Britten and Auden, and although there were large sprinklings of rehearsal-room storylines as the “actors” bickered, joked and sought clarification from the play’s author on various points, the majority of the play centred on Kelly’s driving performance as the poet Auden, a fallen, angry and rather grubbily self-indulgent ageing artist who craved routine, meaning and above all, work.
I am disappointed to report to my fellow poets here that there was very little actual poetry to be had as part of the play’s text. Not a criticism at all of course, but one might have hoped that Bennett may have seen fit to feature a little more of Auden’s poetry in a play with him as the central character. Not to worry, we were instead treated to an insight by one of our greatest contemporary playwrights into a fascinating chapter in the life of one of our most celebrated poets. Auden and Britten had been friends while living with their respective partners in America during the start of the second World War. They collaborated on Britten’s first opera Paul Bunyan, but when Britten returned to England in 1942 they didn’t meet or speak again until some time after Auden had also returned home and been installed as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1956 until 1961.
Both men had strong views on their own and each other’s art, and the subjects covered in this play range from words to music and from sexuality to loneliness. As you might expect, the text was rich with Bennett’s wry, sangfroid comic touches, although perhaps less so in this story than some other of his previous gems such as The Lady in the Van or The History Boys. The supporting cast were far more than foils to the leads, with a particularly fine performance from John Wark as the rather unfulfilled actor playing Humphrey Carpenter, the biographer who was to write about the lives of both these great men.
A simple premise for a play, with some very enjoyable meta-theatre and never a shred of doubt about the integrity of the work nor the wisdom of the actors. The Habit of Art paints a rich and entertaining picture of a great poet, whose enduring popularity was demonstrated by the Belgrade Theatre’s ability to achieve a satisfyingly full-ish house on a dark and dingy Tuesday night in Coventry.
The Habit of Art is midway through its Autumn 2018 UK tour, still to play in Coventry, Salford, Southend and Malvern theatres throughout November. More information is on The Original Theatre Company website.
Write Out Loud reviews: Five stars – Truly exceptional. Four stars – Brilliant. Three stars – Really good. Two stars – Some strong points. One star – Not recommended.
Photo: copyright Helen Maybanks