As some will be able to discern from the title, I went to the National Theatre for the first time yesterday to see Alan Bennett's most recent play, "The Habbit of Art". This is my review, but I fear that once again I have reverted back to my uninformative ramblings:
Irritatingly, I had applied for Entry Pass, the National’s scheme which allows those of us between the ages of 15 and 25 to purchase a ticket for each show for just £5, a week before going on holiday. When I decided to venture to the National for the first time, a decision which I made the day before going on holiday, the card had not yet arrived. I wanted to have it all arranged before I went away, for I had decided to go on the day after results day, which was just two days after my return from Edinburgh, so I went onto the National’s (rather confusing, might I say) website, and picked “The Habit of Art”. After smugly buying a ticket for £16.50, instead of the usual price of £44 for that section, due to the fact that I am under 18, I was pretty annoyed when I arrived back from holiday to find my Entry Pass membership card on the doormat. Still, that just gives me an excuse to go to the National as much as possible now!
I had heard great things about this play, and the fact it was returning to the National for a second season said something to me. Plus, I have vivid memories of sitting in several year nine English lessons whilst the rest of the class became depressed by Sylvia Plath’s musings (they all blamed our teacher for that), analysing my Mum’s tatty old A Level poetry texts, which happened to consist partly of the complete works of WH Auden. Thinking of myself as some Auden expert (I’m really not, these days I cannot name a single one of his poems, even the one I read yesterday!), I decided that “The Habit of Art” was an obvious choice. Realising that neither of my parents would be particularly interested in the play, I was trusted to do what I had been lusting after doing for almost a year: I was allowed to go to London on my own, on the understanding that I walked straight from Waterloo East to the National, texted my Dad when I arrived, collected my ticket, texted my Dad again, ate a baguette in the cafe, then went straight to the bookshop, went to the auditorium and texted my Dad when I was in my seat. The latter failed, however, because my phone seemed incapable of texting in the auditorium, so I had to make a sneaky phone call, much to the annoyance of the old ladies club in front of me. I know there were big signs up saying that mobiles had to be switched off before entering the auditorium, but it was still fifteen minutes until the start time, and it was a necessary evil to guarantee future solo visits to the Southbank.
“The Habit of Art” was a fascinating experience for me. Not only was it my first time at the National, where I was excited to see that they too provide free cast lists in the nature of Broadway’s playbills, but it was also my first experience of seeing a piece which uses the concept of a play within a play. I really enjoyed this, particularly because it offered fascinating insights into the rehearsal process and indeed how difficult actors can be to work with. It also reminded me how similar much of the drama we see on the stage is to true life.
Written by Alan Bennett, “The Habit of Art” is predominantly a comedy, although when one looks closer it is possible that it is also a drama, for the insight it offers into the characters, and indeed the ending, is thought provoking and intriguing. I don’t really know much about Alan Bennett, or his work, other than that I rather enjoyed the film adaptation of “The History Boys” until the rented DVD decided to stop working halfway through. Now, I am intrigued and want to start reading some more of his plays, after I’ve read my lovely new Büchner anthology, “King Lear”, “Othello” and my borrowed Shaffer and Ibsen collections. Oh, and that degree level German play, which I only have the German language version of. Anyway, we’ve now established that the text was very good, and will probably become one of my favourite modern plays.
The plot focuses on Auden’s relationship with Britten and several “Rent Boys” (who are actually “Rent people”!) during his time as the poetry don at Oxford. That is the plot of the play that the actors are rehearsing within the play; the actual play focuses on a day’s rehearsal where the company decide to run the play in the director’s absence. Here we witness a tale of artistic struggle and self dissatisfaction, on top of the plot in the aptly named “Caliban’s Death”. Throughout, there are many humorous references to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, which add to the fun and authenticity of it being a real rehearsal room.
Nicholas Hynter, who is of course artistic director of the National, also directed the play. I had never seen anything directed by him before, because a) I hadn’t been to the National, and b) I wasn’t born when “Miss Saigon” opened, and I was nine when it closed. I really enjoyed the staging, I thought the set, which was static, was intricate yet simple, and that the entire space was used really well. The comedic lines were all very impactive, as were the more serious aspects, for instance the closing scene.
The lead role of Fitz/Auden was played incredibly well by Desmond Barrit. Admittedly, I do have a soft spot for the grumpy old man role, and he did this to perfection. It sort of reminded me of Peter O’Toole’s character in Venus (2005). Malcom Sinclair provided the Britten for his Auden, and whilst the performance was pleasant, it was maybe a little forgettable amongst the rest of the cast. Matthew Cottle’s Humphrey Carpenter was hilarious, and the Donald side of his character was one of the highlights of the show. Overall, though, my favourite performance came from Selina Cadell as Kay/Stage Manager. She was both comedic and touching, and seemed to hold the piece together. I also had a soft spot for Simon Bubb as the long suffering author. He actually reminded me of Dominic Cooper, which was a bit strange because as many people know I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Dominic Cooper’s acting.
Overall, Act One was probably a bit too slow, because all of the main character developments appeared to happen in Act Two. “The Habit of Art” is a modern play which I feel, unlike “ENRON”, could have a number of different incarnations in the future, for because it is a play within a play, it could be set within any era. I wonder if the site-specific jokes concerning the National and Olivier will change as the play goes on tour?
To conclude, I would like to say that the Lyttelton has some of the best theatre seats ever, purely because I was in row R and under the circle, but there was no obstruction by the circle overhang and I had a fantastic view. The seats were also gigantic, but I fear that they were actually just normal size, and I have been spending too much of my theatre-going time at the Menier.