NTL: The Habit of Art – To be an artist is to be forever tormenting oneself

20642_336367728856_452936_nTHEATRE of this standard reaffirms my faith in my own country. That we were great once, and we can be great again. In many ways it isn’t even theatre, but rather an esoteric experience of a fictional meeting between two of our greatest ever minds. The play struggles with homosexual identity in a heterosexual world, writer’s block, and the endless artistic journey to keep producing work of the highest calibre. Art is not always what you see as the finished product, but a product of the philosophical journey.

The Habit of Art is a play within a play. During his years at the National Theatre playwright Alan Bennett was inspired to write through his time in this bastion of British Art and its many rehearsal rooms. The Habit of Art is one of his most acclaimed works and features a cast which includes the late Richard Griffiths (The History Boys) as troubled poet WH Auden in his final performance before his untimely death in the summer. The play is set in Rehearsal Room Two at The National Theatre, as the company of ‘Caliban’s Day’ begin rehearsals.

However, with the director unavailable, it falls to stage manager Kay (Frances De La Tour) to oversee a run-through of the play which imagines a meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) in Auden’s Oxford Halls at Christchurch. With the actors frequently breaking out of character to analyse the individuals they play, The Habit of Art finds itself not only ruminating on art, but on the desire, creativity and passion of these two men.

Benjamin Britten, sailing uncomfortably close to the wind with his new opera, Death in Venice, seeks advice from his former friend and confidant WH Auden. During this out-of-body meeting, their first for 25 years since the breakdown of their relationship because of the failed Broadway Opera Paul Bunyan in 1942, they are observed and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer and a young man from the local bus station (or, in other words, a rent-boy).

Alan Bennett’s play is as much about the theatre as it is about poetry or music. It looms over the rather unsettling and misguided desires of two men made difficult by their passion, and at the ethics of biography. It reflects on the existentialism of growing old and old men nearing death, and on persisting although the tank of passion from which they fuelled their artistic tendencies is now full of fumes. Ultimately, it fittingly examines the habits behind the art, a story you rarely see.

Griffiths and Jennings and aided superbly by De La Tour, who plays the role of Kay with humour and sensitivity. In fact, all the actors, even including Stephen Wright who plays Stuart the sex worker, display a great understanding of their characters. Griffiths and Jennings are not inhibited by the legendary status of their subjects, rather motivated to give a performance worthy of the men they are representative of.

The National Theatre Live Programme is a much-loved and much-needed way to ensure that the best theatrical productions this country has to offer reaches the most people as possible. It is not your average marketing gimmick; it is simply a way to offer the arts a wider audience. If it wasn’t for such a well-thought of outreach programme, I wouldn’t have been able to see this excellent play. Yet more evidence that The Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth is a building that should be cared for and held close to our hearts.