The first major revival of Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art heads to Theatre Royal Brighton from Tuesday to Saturday, September 11-15.
Directed by Philip Franks, it stars Matthew Kelly as W H Auden/Fitz and David Yelland as Benjamin Britten/Henry in an exploration of friendship, rivalry and heartache – and the joy, pain and emotional cost of creativity.
The piece centres on a fictional meeting between poet Auden and composer Britten. Bennett wrote it as a play within a play: actors Fitz, Henry, Tim and Donald are rehearsing a play called Caliban’s Day under the direction of stage manager, Kay, and in the presence of the playwright, Neil. In Caliban’s Day, a fictitious meeting occurs in 1973 in Auden’s (Fitz) rooms at Oxford not long before he dies. As Matthew explains: “The meeting is fictitious in that Auden and Britten never actually met after 1942 when they fell out. When Britten fell out with people, they were known as corpses. He never forgave them. They were dead to him.
“But this meeting takes place 30 years later, shortly before their deaths. Britten died at 63 and Auden was 66, and it imagines their collaboration on Britten’s last piece which was Death In Venice. It is about him coming to Auden for help with the libretto.
“I am playing Arden, and really you can get all you need from the text, but you can get a lot from Google and from books. There is another character called Humphrey Carpenter who wrote many biographies. He is a commentator as well. But you have also got Fitz, Henry, Donald and Tim who are all playing characters in the play, and we come in and out of the play which gives us the chance for a lot of theatrical jokes and we also get to commentate on the play.
“But what is fascinating about Bennett is that he is intellectually hospitable. He brings us in. He is incredible. He doesn’t talk down. He doesn’t dumb down. You never feel that you are out of your depth with Bennett. He is kind, and really what the play is about is creativity and friendship and death. It is also about sex, and it is also fantastically funny.
“It feels typical Bennett. It is very, very witty, but it is also very, very moving. It also gives voice to the people that don’t have a voice, the people that look after the stars of the world, the people that surround Britten and Auden.
“Bennett is not involved in every production. He couldn’t be. But he is aware of what is happening and always very encouraging. This is my fourth Alan Bennett. I have done two productions of Kafka’s Dick, the first of which was with my son in York and then I did Kafka’s Dick in Bath and then I did The History Boys. Every time I have done a production of Alan Bennett, the opening night, he always sends a little card and a bottle of champagne for the company.”