Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Habit of Art at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
“It’s nice to see a grown up play for a change,” a friend remarked in the interval of Alan Bennett’s play, The Habit of Art, a meditation on friendship. Grown up it is, not really for the many jokes about men’s parts that litter this clever comedy about actors playing two famous homosexuals. More for the subtleties of that complex relationship which, in this case, has been broken.
The premise is a theatrical company rehearsing a play about poet W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, who were indeed great friends and collaborators for many years, but who broke up, as it were, after the poor reception of an opera they had composed together. Art gets in the way of friendship, as it does just about any relationship if art is taken seriously, and in the play they are rehearsing, which is called Caliban’s Day, the lost loves between the two men are painfully writ large.
Caliban’s Day is a play by fictional playwright Neil (Robert Mountford), who is awkwardly present at the rehearsals on stage. He has written a play that builds on Auden’s professed belief that Shakespeare’s The Tempest is unfinished, that Caliban should have had an epilogue dedicated to him, in which he speaks for the unrepresented people who are affected by the games played by the powerful. In this case, the Caliban figure is carried by Tim playing Stuart (Benjamin Chandler), a rent boy who comes to service a rather decrepit W H Auden in Oxford in 1972.
The comedy is driven in part by a case of mistaken identity. Auden at first believes that Humphrey Carpenter (John Wark) is his assigned visitor, unaware that he has come to interview him. This opens the door to the story of Auden and Britten’s relationship, which seems to have always been both tense and close, expressed through art rather than sex. Britten (David Yelland) is anxious that his penchant for boy singers is not misconstrued. Homosexuality was emerging from out of the shadows, and each man was tentatively exploring the new world around him. We learn a lot in this play about the gay underworld at the time.
One might imagine a play with such a complex premise might end up being somewhat overwhelming in its cleverness. But it isn’t. What carries it is the very human, often tender, expressions of vulnerability. Two old men, much of their greatest work behind them, are in the habit of creating art. It’s a dangerous habit that gets in the way of simple relationships, but when you have gifts such as those possessed by arguably two of the greatest English artists of the 20th century, life is never going to be easy. One might add Bennett’s name to that roll call.
The play has some fine acting, all of which deserves mention, but for which there isn’t space. For me, two of the most remarkable were Neil and Stuart, who are onstage for much of the play, watching the rehearsal, but with only occasional periods of action. When they do burst into life, Neil committed to his vision of the two greats, Stuart to his demand that people like him be recognised, they blaze like fireworks. Being on stage with nothing to do but watch and making that performance in itself real and heartfelt is an achievement in itself, but they do it, and one might say they carry us with them.
The Habit of Art is a play that will leave you fulfilled, as if you had eaten a sophisticated meal with ingredients you can sense but can’t quite place. It’s delicious!
* The Habit of Art runs until Saturday November 10. Visit belgrade.co.uk to book.