Whether it is from his late 80's series Talking Heads, the recent film adaptation of The Lady in the Van, or his smash-hit plays The History Boys, The Madness of George III and most recently Allelujah!, most of us are all familiar with Alan Bennett's tone of voice which is full of both wit and intellect. One of his more recent plays, The Habit of Art is no different in displaying that tone, since its opening at the National Theatre in 2009 with Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings.
For the two hours, we are the fly on the wall for a rehearsal of a play called Caliban's Day - which shows a fictionalised meeting between the poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in their later years. We are immediately faced with the strikingly realistic set of a local church hall, designed by Adrian Linford. It is a spacious with tall walls, noticeboards, fire exit signs, black curtains and hanging LED lights which are switched on by the cast both at the start and end of the play (and virtually the only source of lighting in this performance). But what is fascinating is the amount and use of props around the stage, like a clutter of resources for our actors to rehearse with.
The performances from this company of seven are individually terrific and work masterfully with Bennett's writing and Phillip Franks' marvelous direction with pace, intricacy and charm in this humorous piece. Leading the cast is Olivier-winning actor Matthew Kelly as Fitz an actor who plays Auden in the piece. There is initially something a bit diva-ish about Fitz's rehearsal process, constantly asking for the next line due to his old age, but Kelly gives a delightful performance as Auden, a decrepit old man who pays for rent boys and is full of ego. Star of screen and stage David Yelland also gives a great performance as Henry, who plays Britten. He is more reserved and nervous than Kelly's Auden but is sharper and full of expertise in his craft as a composer.
As the title may suggest, the whole piece is about the practice of art and how we as human beings tend to use or create it. The supporting characters personify brilliantly the need to feel purpose with their art, or in this case acting. We tend to both laugh and sympathise with John Wark as Donald, who acts as an omnipresent narrator in the Caliban's Day, but bevomes full of frustration as merely a device, not knowing where to stand and desperation leads him to entering the second half in drag to feel needed among the company. Benjamin Chandler also provides a lot of laughs as the rent boy hired by Auden and at the end of the piece also begins to feel frustration of his purpose as an actor. Robert Mountford who plays Neil, the writer of Caliban's Day as someone who is protective of the piece he has written and having to make do with misbehaving actors and script cuts or changes beyond his control.
Alexandra Guelff and Veronica Roberts are both superb as George and Kay the stage managers ensuring the production goes ahead as planned. They also have funny scenes personifying Auden's furniture and help deliver the context of Britten's music and Auden's poetry. Roberts in particular ends the play with a moving monologue that helps us the audience understand the craft that actors and theatre makers bring to an evening like the one we are watching.
There is plenty to enjoy in this profound and multi-leveled play that is packed with many themes that will survive for as long as great theatre, such as this, will survive as well as all other forms of glorious art.
The Habit of Art runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday.
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