I recently interviewed Pamela Carter, author of An Argument About Sex. Carter suggested that Scotland lacks critics, but has plenty of reviewers. She went on to express frustration at the amount of reviews that begin with the writer's personal opinion. She is very likely to hate this piece.
My suspicions about the script as a foundation for performance seem to get restated every time I write about theatre. Alan Bennett, despite having written only five plays, is one of Britain's most well-known playwrights, and his latest offering, The Habit of Art, comes with a National Theatre seal of quality. And yes, his ear for dialogue is great, his characterisation deft and nuanced. Habit arrives complete with a play-within-a-play, forcing the actors to jump between representing actors and characters: an imagined conversation between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten is at the heart of the drama, now with added rent boy action. It's as if Bennett lost faith in his original idea of a seminal meeting between these two giants of the twentieth century, and decided to hide it beneath self-conscious performance satire. By the end of the first half, a deliberately bad play is hidden beneath theatrical in-jokes about bad writing, the pretension of playwrights, the silliness of experimental theatre and the pomposity of actors. Any serious comments on the creative process are lost beneath light humour and mild irony.
Yet it is well acted, well directed (no-one wanders in front of anyone else, the lines are clear, the characters reveal their pasts and anxieties in asides and sudden monologues) and well received. Bennett's Talking Heads proved his ability to excavate the tragedy in the mundane and compassionately dissect the quiet despair of modern life. But by framing what could have been an explosive meeting between the poet and composer within an extended skit on the creation of a play, Bennett makes a pair of devils fit for the family album. Even the dick jokes are sadly limp.
Both Britten and Auden struggled with their sexuality - the core play is set in 1972, a difficult time for homosexuals, regardless of their fame, and Bennett occasionally confronts their mutual alienation. Equally, both men were caustic and passionate and chafed at the conventions of British reserve: Bennett captures this, but only uses it to note how far we have come, socially. There is no connection between the past's oppressions and contemporary obsessions - even a wistful line that all this happened before AIDS doesn't locate the action within its historical context.
Bennett's cast and characters amble along, proficient, skilled, charming and ultimately irrelevant. This is a great night out, if you like good acting and witty - and very English - banter. I might hate scripts, but enjoyed the quality of the writing. I am just disappointed that a show featuring two major artists, and written by a third, lacked so little relevance. It is, indeed, a habit of art, rather than a full scale passionate engagement.
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