The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett – Originl Theatre Company – New Wolsey Theatre and Touring
The humour of this comedy made the whole theatre clutch their stomachs!
On October the 8th 2018, my Dad and I travelled into the centre of Ipswich to watch the play ‘The Habit of Art’ at the New Wolsey Theatre. The play was due to start at 19.45, but we made an early entry to settle down and take a few notes beforehand, though, of course, we were very eager to feast our eyes on this apparently riveting, gut-busting play. In all honesty I wasn’t convinced as I had heard it had a great storyline and much adult humour, but decided to keep an open mind. I am delighted to say I was pleasantly surprised.
This Alan Bennett piece first premiered on the 5th of November 2009 in the Lyttelton Theatre, London. The Original Theatre Company took on the challenge of presenting the play this year, no doubt putting a tremendous amount of effort and time into this play.
The structure is rather complex. We are watching a rehearsal of a play called ‘Caliban’s Day’, a play about a meeting between Benjamin Britten and WH Auden. ‘The Habit Of Art’ itself centres on 4 main characters: Fitz who plays WH Auden (played by the actor Matthew Kelly), Henry who plays Benjamin Britten (played by the actor David Yelland), Tim who plays Stuart (played by the actor Benjamin Chandler) and Donald who plays Humphrey Carpenter (played by the actor John Wark).The director has been called away, so they have a run through directed by Kay who is the Stage Manager (played by the actor Veronica Roberts) with the help of Neil who is the playwright (the actor Robert Mountford).
‘Caliban’s Day’ is about a fabricated meeting in 1973, the year before Auden dies, in Auden’s rooms at Oxford. The meeting is between Auden and the Composer, Benjamin Britten. Before the meeting takes place, Auden hires a rent boy, Stuart, and when Humphrey Carpenter rudely arrives to interview him, Auden mistakes him for Stuart and as you can imagine some of the dark humour was put here.
Britten has been auditioning boys for the opera, ‘Death in Venice’ and the light it may cast on his own life. The characters the break out of role to discuss the issues of Auden, Britten and the play. Doing this they reveal secrets of their own background.
The character Henry, played by David Yelland, was one of the stand-out roles for me. He has some kind of power over the others, everyone falls quiet and listens when he speaks. Also, the way he drops hints of his past without being detected is rather clever, perhaps this is a use of dramatic irony. Though he is a main part in the play, his character is very subtle, and, subtly played.
Furthermore, the character Fitz was a big role, very literally. His voice boomed over all else, though usually sarcastically or making a grumbling comment toward the writer Neil. He was the main source of getting everyone on the floor laughing, though they weren’t actual jokes, his tone and his crotchety charisma made his character a particular audience favourite. The way he always answered back and made completely pointless complaints at times really gave us an idea of how unhappy he is, doing what he’s doing. I felt Fitz didn’t enjoy his role of Auden and disagreed with his ways. This led to his constant conflict with Neil, always bickering and shouting; very amusing!
The box set on the New Wolsey stage really gave the play a natural feeling. The whole production felt very realistic, maybe this could be due to the fine acting but I believe the staging played a part. It was almost as if I had been sucked in and I was there with the actors rehearsing. I think this concludes the staging was very effective.
Moreover, I believe the overhanging lights had a very authentic effect also. They looked as if they would be suited in a drama theatre or backstage for rehearsal. The actual light it portrayed had a very dull beam, not bright but not dark; it added to the time period of the scene, they definitely belonged to that era. Also, large spotlights were used for putting attention on certain actors, sometimes when pronouncing a speech or an important line, the actor would have a circle of attention, sometimes this included other actors.
In my opinion, it’s crystal clear that the play is an Alan Bennett due to the clever twists and hints to the main subject, in this case to gay prostitution and paedophilia. It was so very well devised, with excellent attention to detail and well researched facts about Auden’s and Britten’s past. The actors themselves played the characters impeccably, showing no sign of flaw or fatigue, a very professional performance. Furthermore, I particularly liked the character of Fitz, played by Matthew Kelly. A lot of dark humour within the play came from his role and he played it very coolly and without a hint of a smile.
The only thing I would say that popped up for me is some of the words used, phrases spoken, were too complicated and confusing to get around. This is perhaps due to my uneducated mind on this topic. Therefore, I in fact recommend this production to 17 years and above, though I thought at times it was my cup of tea. To conclude, it was a great watch, sure to finish your day on a high (unless you’re writing a report that is!).
A review by Freddie Adams of East Bergholt High School