Regular readers will know that I have recently been enduring a dry spell in terms of theatrical and operatic enjoyment. I had hoped that Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, would end it, but it was not to be. This is a disappointing evening from almost all perspectives, and a waste of the enormous talents present on the stage.
The conceit of the piece recalls a device Bennett has previously used in Forty Years On of the play within a play. I only wish I could report it works as successfully here. Here the National Theatre is rehearsing a new play by a man called Neil (who bore a disturbing resemblance at times to Harvey Baines in Waiting for God) which deals with a fictitious meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten shortly before their deaths. Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings play the actors playing the aforementioned famous men. The play within the play is further complicated by the presence of a third actor (Adrian Scarborough) playing Humphrey Carpenter, who, because of having written biographies of the two men is considered well placed to comment on them. The play without the play has the benefit of Frances de la Tour in the Stage Manager's seat. If all this sounds tedious, pretentious and over-complicated that's because it is.
The most profound problem, which becomes increasingly evident as the play goes on, is that you begin to feel that actually Bennett really has nothing to say about Auden or Britten (beyond the facts that Auden was a deadly bore in old age and Britten liked boys, both of which facts, as Screwtape might have put it, I could have found out from other sources). In particular, Bennett is depressingly barren of insight with respect to the music and the poetry – there is hardly any of either in the play. Their collaboration on the GPO film unit is mentioned in passing, their major operatic collaboration Paul Bunyan is totally ignored. There never seems to be a really compelling reason why the two should want to meet again, and what little momentum the play within a play tries to build up around this moment is dissipated by the constant interruptions from the other actors, the stage managers and the fictitious author.
I have read that Bennett completed a version of the play and then things were delayed by his ill health. One almost wonders if somewhere within that delay the piece slipped away from him and he has tried to disguise this by the retreat into the device of the play-within-a-play. The alternative possibility is that Bennett is trying to say something clever about the problems of writing a play, the trouble with actors, the trouble with being a writer nearing the end of your creative life. That alternative is all very well, but sadly many of those things have been done more convincingly by other writers.
For the cast one can only have sympathy as they struggle with this at times desperately unsympathetic text. The laughs are few and far between, the emotional engagement hard to come by. Frances de la Tour is excellent but largely wasted as the stage manager. Richard Griffiths is hamstrung by the fact that one of Bennett's main points is to emphasise how boring the elderly Auden was – Griffiths duly is. Adrian Scarborough's character is, as he himself admits, a device within the play, and duly annoying. Alex Jennings alone manages to make something of the text. He provides a striking variety of performance, all quite different from anything I have seen him do before. The moment when he is trying to explain how a rent boy might behave and becomes lost in reminiscence is beautifully observed, and one of the few occasions during the evening when I was moved.
Astute readers will have noticed that the title of this review refers back to Fram. For those who did not experience it, Fram was a diabolical new play put on in the Olivier with a large cast who mostly did nothing, a large set which was mostly pointless, and lots of pretentious things to say about the whole idea of putting on plays in a National Theatre. I would never have believed that Alan Bennett would somehow end up writing along the same lines, and yet that is exactly how this play ends (or rather that is exactly what the third ending of this play is – yes there are three endings – yes it is tedious, pretentious, annoying, etc., etc.)
Bennett's past career is largely a story of triumphs. His contribution to Beyond the Fringe, Forty Years On, The Madness of George III, The History Boys and in some ways my favourite, the brilliant A Question of Attribution. Perhaps there is a deliberate irony here since in the play Bennett is busy commenting on the contemporary sense that people were wanting Auden and Britten to stop. But this is not actually very convincing. Britten for one had not ceased to be creative (or at least not at the point we see him in the play). I doubt that most people want Bennett to cease writing great plays, and did Bennett really set out to provide staged evidence of a talent in decline? Clearly the National anticipated another History Boys and, indeed, on the strength of Bennett's reputation they have managed to sell out the whole first booking period and organise a national tour before the appearance of a single review.
I really wanted this to be a great evening at the theatre. Instead it reminded me of Tony Harrison's Fram and Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You – two other very poor plays put on one suspects because well known authors are not subject to the same critical judgement as first time aspirants. For the sake of this fine cast, the audience who are paying good money, and for Bennett, somebody should have had the courage to say stop.