The Habit of Art

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Philip K. Dick

Continuing the catching-up-on-stuff-I-saw-weeks-ago theme (because that’s totally a thing), today I’m going to talk about The Habit of Art, an Alan Bennet play about a theatre company rehearsing Caliban’s Day, a fictional play about a fictional meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten towards the ends of their respective lives.

It was one of the plays broadcast live by the National Theatre in 2009, and that broadcast was repeated recently in A Picturehouse Cinema Near Me as part of the NT’s 50th anniversary celebrations (apparently). And procrastination happened.

The Habit of Art is really a very entertaining play. It’s funny, for a start, often very funny, as well as delightfully metatheatrical, with all the tics and tantrums you might expect from a real theatrical rehearsal, and the actors commenting on their own performances and characters in Caliban’s Day.

Which brings me rather neatly onto how convincing it all is. I didn’t realise, until the camera panned around at the interval to film the audience, that the set was an actual set on an actual stage, rather than just a room. It looks absolutely like a real rehearsal hall, down to the last detail. There are actors who never speak, who are there to complete the illusion: a sound guy who has no actual role other than to sit and look as if he is doing sound stuff; at one point someone dressed as a Mongol wanders in, presumably to reinforce the illusion that other rehearsals are going on elsewhere, and wanders straight out again. During the interval, the actors have actual coffee and chat (more or less inaudible) onstage. It’s all fascinatingly real.

Where this illusion falls down, sadly, is the final monologue, delivered by the stage manager (played by Frances de la Tour) as she leaves the stage, which feels a little flat and wooden, and, dare I say it, pointless. I’m sure it’s there to give the whole thing the impression that it actually means something deep and important, but really it’s just annoying. It would, I feel, have been enough to let the play and the play-within-the-play speak for themselves, rather than wrap up with a Thought For The Day that sounds suspiciously like “And the moral of the story is…”

Generally, though, the rest of the play is enough to outweigh that little piece of moralising, with all its meditation on writing, theatre, poetry, music, old age and memory, its wonderful performances from Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings as Auden and Britten, and even a fleeting Lord of the Rings reference…what more could you want, from a play?

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