Fringe Box



Stage Dragon Review: The Habit of Art – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Published on: 2 Oct, 2018
Updated on: 2 Oct, 2018

By Alice Fowler

Are great artists fully human? What drives them to create? And does their greatness mean they can behave as they like along the way? Such questions, and many more, are explored in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, on show at the Yvonne Arnaud all this week.

The play centres on an imagined meeting between the poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in 1972, rekindling an old friendship at a point when both are less regarded than they once were.

Matthew Kelly is magnificent as the crumpled Auden, “an odiferous poet with a face like his balls”, dwelling in squalor at an Oxford college. David Yelland convinces too as Britten: still dapper and outwardly successful, yet whose power base in Aldeburgh, Suffolk,  is slipping away, thanks to his fondness for young boys.

Bennet holds little back in his exploration of the sexual mores of north Oxford, with memorable lines such as: ‘I’m not a rent boy, I was at Keble’. The action takes place as a play within a play, switching between a rehearsal room and Auden’s lodging. Skill and split-second timing are needed to move between the two and the whole company achieves this with aplomb.

…If loneliness is the epidemic of our age, this play explores it with tenderness and wit.

The production is the first ever revival of Bennett’s play, first performed at the National Theatre in 2009, with the late Richard Griffiths as Auden. Under Philip Franks’ taut direction the play takes on fresh life, emerging fully from the shadow of its predecessor.

Matthew Kelly, John Wark & David Yelland © Helen Maybanks

Humphrey Carpenter (John Wark), the biographer of both men, is also present, supposedly observing their conversation. Bennett being Bennett, things are far cleverer than this, with the actor playing Carpenter lamenting his position as a ‘device’ and attempting to steal the action.

Benjamin Chandler plays Tim, a rent boy whom Auden has summoned to his room. Bennett gives him a voice too, with an impassioned speech on boys like him who are ‘the fodder of art’ and whose voices are left out of history.

Matthew Kelly as Auden and David Yelland as Britten © Helen Maybanks

Mostly though this is Auden and Britten’s story, provokingly and movingly told. Only at the very end, when stage manager Kay (the excellent Veronica Roberts) turns out the lights, do we realise that her life is empty too. If loneliness is the epidemic of our age, this play explores it with tenderness and wit.

‘The Habit of Art’ continues at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre until October 6. See, Box Office 01483 440000.

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