Alexandra Guelff and Robert Mountford, as ‘the author’

Alexandra Guelff and Robert Mountford, as ‘the author’

The Habit of Art By Alan Bennett

Is this play a cry of protest from a misunderstood writer? Everyone thinks they know Alan Bennett, the brainy boy from Leeds who shot to fame alongside a bunch of young Oxbridge clever-clog satirists to make ‘Beyond the Fringe’ a West End super- success . ‘The History Boys’ and ‘The Madness of King George’ were smash hits for him and lately ‘Lady in a Van’ filmed with Maggie Smith have set him up as a cuddly fireside all-purpose Yorkshireman; the literary twin of sporting Geoffrey Boycott, outspoken but reassuring.  Yet in this complex, even at time baffling, play he heaves that image right out of the window. Anyone expecting a friendly old chap dunking his ginger biscuits and reminiscing over random memories of Mam and Dad will be in for a shock. The play is often relentlessly obscene. 

 And it’s hard to follow; a play within a play. Most of the actors interpret their working thespian story - and also play a character in ‘Caliban’s Song” written by a flouncy earnest young Neil who’s forever flying off the handle ( as one of Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ might have said). And to complicate things further, there is a third dimension. The action turns on a meeting in an Oxford college room between the poet W.H.Auden and his erstwhile friend Benjamin Britten – who haven’t met for 30 years. They actually fell out in 1942 and never spoke again so this too is an invention. “Caliban’s Song’ is already in chaos when ‘The Habit of Art’ opens. A grubby rehearsal room cluttered with props where a crowd of actors and a nice-but-mumsily-bossy  stage- manager await their director Stephen for a run through. But Stephen is stuck in Blackpool. Instead the author, Neil charges in, breathless to see his new play take life. Is this a glimpse of the real Alan Bennett? Touchy, intolerant of luvvies all round, he fumes with resentment as parts of his dialogue vanish- and the actors fail to remember their lines. Matthew Kelly last night, was W.H.Auden (but truly light years from Stars in the their Eyes) and so convincing as he handles Bennett’s interpretation of the finest poet of the twentieth century. He’s also keen to get off to do his voice-over commercial for Tesco’s. (not Auden, his actor). Back in the pretend inner-play Auden awaits an interviewer from the BBC’s Humphrey Carpenter, a man destined to be his biographer. And that of Britten. Unfortunately when he arrives, Auden takes him for the rent boy he has ordered up to his room. This is a real life event and amusing enough as the rather superior Carpenter declares he is the son of the Bishop of Oxford and has no knowledge of rent-boy protocol. Yet here Bennett is loath to leave the subject alone.  He returns to the puzzled rent boy and in some excruciating scenes discusses with him the size, shape and texture of ‘dicks’ he has known.  Hard to know why Bennett includes all this.  It doesn’t advance the plot but is it a dash for realism, the revelation that venerated old men however brilliant and famous are just men, needy and lustful.  

Yet Bennett is saying much more than this. David Yelland as Benjamin Britten (he is also an actor called Henry) brilliantly renders the much-vaunted composer as an uptight cautious genius, tortured by his own homosexuality, fearful and disappointed in his partner’s infidelities. As is Auden: Peter Pears is playing away in Athens. Yet Britten is confident of his legacy, his musical achievement (he’s working on ‘Death in Venice’ and Auden begs to be allowed to write the libretto - but Britten turns him down). The writer’s words, Bennett is saying, are often ignored, changed altered, where the musician unfairly triumphs. The banter around the two men’s queerness is good and entertaining – and as the biographer tries to extract personal information, it is the lovely poems, done so well by Kelly, which triumph as the power of language over the squalor of ageing and the demands of the flesh.

But do they? The author clashes with his actor/Auden in the end, insisting that Caliban (the venal savage from The Tempest) finish the play instead of a delightful poem of Auden’s. Young Stuart the young prostitute has the last word. 

A tough demanding evening at the theatre, sure, but in the end this unique play by the real Alan Bennett, brings us much nearer the truth about these two famous men, the author himself and the nature of Art .

The ending is sadly cynical. ‘You are no use until you die’, announces the passionate Stuart, ‘Then they can write their obituaries’ There is a high price for being a famous national treasure – Bennett is saying – you are, despite all the genius, a kind of commodity. When it’s over your adoring public want you gone.

The Habit of Art is on at The Arts Theatre Cambridge until Saturday.

 On the Death of W.B Yeats By W. H.Auden

Let the Irish vessel lie

Emptied of its poetry. 

 In the nightmare of the dark 

All the dogs of Europe bark, 

And the living nations wait, 

Each sequestered in its hate

Intellectual disgrace 

Stares from every human face,

 And the seas of pity lie

 Locked and frozen in each eye.  

Follow, poet, follow right 

To the bottom of the night,

 With your unconstraining voice

Still persuade us to rejoice;  

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse, 

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress; 

 In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start,

 In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.