The Habit of Art

I pity the poor playwright whose characters keep arguing about what they should be like. Or maybe I don’t. It could be that some timely input from those who have to climb into the skins of other people are best placed to know what will work. Although I would draw the line at drag and tuba playing. Goddess of wind; I think not. If nothing else, in a play where they pee in the kitchen sink and fart in character, wind is worth not mentioning.

Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art is rather like an onion. There are enough layers to confuse you. So it’s about a group of actors rehearsing a play – Caliban’s Day – about WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. But it’s also about Fitz and Henry who play Auden and Britten. There is the difference between the play’s play’s Auden and Britten and the real ones. And then there is the audience watching Alan Bennett’s drama, which opened at The Lowry last night.

Desmond Barrit in The Habit of Art, photo by Catherine Ashmore

It’s a National Theatre original, and it shows, with direct references to the National. That would have been good had we actually been in the Olivier auditorium, but the touring version of Bennett’s drama could do with some local re-writes. Perhaps mentioning a toilet in the Lowry where Fitz could ‘do his business’ without being overheard. It was a little like finding out you’re a replacement for someone else at the dinner party.

Speaking of parties, Fitz has never brought cake to any productions he’s acted in, having been a star at all times. It’s the smallest part actor who brings cake. So no cake even for The Birthday Party. This time round it seems the cake bringer might have defected to the Chekhov play.

It’s an almost exclusively male cast, again. Maybe Bennett can’t do women? He’s pretty good with gay characters, however, which isn’t surprising. The play within the play’s rent boy is keen to take his clothes off, while Fitz is desperate to be allowed to smoke. And Henry as himself, rather than as Britten, knows a surprising amount about what rent boys do.

The Habit of Art refers continuously to Shakespeare and all of of art and culture. ‘Thomas Mann was my father-in-law’, and there’s news that Tolkien has written another effing novel about elves.

Desmond Barrit and Malcolm Sinclair in The Habit of Art, photo by Catherine Ashmore

There is a set-within-the-set, so two kitchens. One for peeing in and one for the actors to make their coffee. They wander about on the stage going about their business, leaving the audience to wake up to the fact that the play has begun. We had a 20-minute interval, whereas they only had 15 minutes. Brian from the Chekhov wandered in to chat.

Not so difficult to know when the play ends. Someone switching off the lights and leaving is a pretty obvious hint. And I wonder if Prospero is all right?

It’s a very enjoyable onion.

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