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The Habit of Art

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
4 stars
If everyone is an artist, Alan Bennett’s Russian doll of a play captures the full workaday grind of creative collaboration in close-up. A play within a play set in the rehearsal room of the Royal National Theatre where current RNT director Nicholas Hytner’s production was itself possibly put through its paces, the fictional in-house company are working on Caliban’s Day, an imagined 1972 meeting between poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

Auden has just moved back into Oxford’s hallowed halls and is visited by Britten, who is struggling with his operatic version of Thomas Mann’s novel, Death in Venice. Offstage, with the director absent, a leading man struggling with his lines, a narrator who thinks the story’s all about him and a stage manager who’s everybody’s therapist, the lunatics appear to be taking over the asylum. As the exasperated and oddly Danny Dyer-like playwright himself asks, “Why does a play have to be such a performance?”

As self-reflexive as all this is, Bennett has created a frank and sometimes filthy affair that manages to be both fanboy homage to Auden and Britten and knowingly funny treatise on the state of art, with both states hinting at some tellingly personal undertones. As Fitz, the old ham playing Auden, Desmond Barrit serves up several layers of past-his-sell-by-date vulnerability, while Malcolm Sinclair’s Henry, aka Britten, is a more haunted figure. In a big production that doesn’t shy away from the vanity, ego and insecurity of artists at play, Bennett has laid bare the fragile and essential negotiation between artifice and truth, where printing the legend is infinitely more entertaining than actual fact.

The Herald, November 25th 2010

ends

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