As I’ve previously written, The Habit of Art is a serious undertaking for the National Theatre. The previous Bennett/Hytner collaboration was the much lauded (and enormously profitable) History Boys which did much to bolster Hytner’s reputation at Sellafield on Thames.
The comparisons between the new play and the former are inevitable but unhelpful, because The Habit of Art is a strikingly different play: focused on the creation of art and its associated processes, theatre, authorship and filled throughout with meta-theatrical devices. It is, in short, much more of an Alan Bennett play than The History Boys ever was.
The plot follows a rehearsal for a new production at the National, with Frances de la Tour at the helm as Stage Manager in the absence of the director – who has been called away to Leeds for a conference on the importance of regional theatre which he had forgotten about.
The play within the play is called Caliban’s Day and focuses on an imagined meeting late in life between WH Auden (played by Fitz, played by Richard Griffiths who replaced Michael Gambon due to illness), Benjamin Britten (played by Henry, played by Alex Jennings) and a rent boy representing Caliban (played by Stuart, played by Stephen Wight). The narrator is Humphrey Carpenter, their biographer, played by Donald, played by Adrian Scarborough. If it all sounds terribly convoluted then it’s testament to Bennett’s nimble touch that it never feels like that for a moment.
This set up, in fact, gives Bennett a superb blank canvas on which to play with ideas such as the nature of theatre (“I’m a device!” whines one actor, “Of course he’s a fucking device!” exclaims the author, himself a device), the nature of creativity and the nature of reputation. Each of these themes is overlaid by an overarching question as to the intersection between the essential natures of these concepts and their associated peripheries, the eponymous ‘habits’.
Needless to say, Bennett’s script fizzes with wit, humour and intellect. Needless to say, the performances are faultless (although it must be admitted that they are more competent than they are exceptional). Needless to say, the direction feels slick and effortless. The play never truly engages on an emotional level – we never really care about Auden or Britten or the actors putting on the preposterous Caliban’s Day – but given the many layers with which Bennett weaves his play, perhaps that’s not a failing. Whatever this play lacks in heart it certainly makes up for in brains.
The Habit of Art will likely not run for half a decade, likely not make instant stars of its entire cast, likely not reduce audiences to weeping and likely not fill the coffers of the NT to bursting. Nevertheless, this is an excellent production of an excellent play – and we can’t really ask more than that.