There is no one quite like Alan Bennett.
The Yorkshire-born writer has been delighting audiences for nearly fifty years. His plays include the beloved History Boys, The Madness of George III and The Lady in the Van.
His writing is intelligent and thought-provoking. But its sharpness is always tempered by a big-hearted warmth and wittiness – like a don telling dirty jokes to shatter the stuffiness of a sherry party.
“Bennett can’t write without being funny,” said Philip Franks, the director of The Habit of Art. “This is a very humane play. It’s a story of work, friendship, betrayal and sexuality – any single person in the audience can relate to those things.
“It’s about something which touches the heart of all of us.”
The Habit of Art imagines a meeting between the composer Benjamin Britten and the poet W.H. Auden in 1973, the year that Auden died. In reality, by this point the men had not spoken for more than 30 years – they fell out over the failure of an opera they collaborated on.
But in Bennett’s depiction, these cultural titans of the twentieth century are brought together for one final time.
The meeting is written as a play-within-a-play – a cast are rehearsing a play, Caliban’s Day, about the encounter whilst bantering, bickering and commenting on the action.
This means that it never feels stuffy, observed David Yelland, who plays Benjamin Britten.
“You get different levels of engagement – there’s the rehearsal room story and the real story. This means that [Bennett] doesn’t have to explain things as he goes along, so what could be a remote subject matter isn’t at all,” he said.
The Habit of Art premiered at the National Theatre in 2009 with a large cast and lots of in-jokes.
When Mr Franks first revived it in 2018, he cut the cast significantly and removed site-specific references. The version that was due to play in Croydon in May has same cast – bar one – as that acclaimed original tour.
Mr Franks explained: “It’s a bit like cleaning a painting, you can see the figure in the darkness behind. My job is to reveal the play – get out there with the Q-tips so it can live on stage.”
Mathew Kelly, who plays W.H. Auden, agreed: “Relearning a play can be a challenge, but I love bringing it back. Something happens to you as a person in the meantime, and you find many more levels you hadn’t discovered before.”
Alongside probing the sometimes painful fissure between private and public life, and the challenges of being a ‘national treasure’ – something Bennett is acutely sensitive to – the play explores the thorny issue of the pair’s sexuality.
Homosexuality had only been legalised six years before, and Britten never felt able to live openly.
“We are dead centre of a political debate about sexuality,” said Mr Franks. “Despite his lightness of touch, Bennett very much tackles these issues in the play. He views it with great honesty – and we’re looking at these concerns through a magnifying glass now.”
Mr Kelly explained of his depiction of Auden: “It’s about being true to yourself. Not lying about who you are.”
But despite these weighty themes, The Habit of Art zings with life.
Mr Yelland observed: “A good play will always have contemporary resonance. You’re touching on eternal human truths – fidelity, betrayal, friendship and love. It’s not about Brexit though, thank God!”
At its heart, it’s a play for everyone, Mr Franks believes.
He said: “Don’t be frightened, it’s absolutely for you. It’s not daunting at all.”
The Habit of Art was due to open at Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne on Wednesday 18 March 2020, before touring. The cast will now perform a closed filmed performance on Wednesday 18 March 2020 at 2pm. More information available here.
Feature image credit: Helen Maybanks