National Theatre hit The Habit of Art set for Glasgow Theatre Royal
Alan Bennett’s play explores artistic relationship between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten
From Picasso’s vaguely prurient late work, to Yeats’ references to tits and bums in his later poems, great artists have often taken great pleasure in alarming their audiences by entering into a second childhood with alarming sexual references. In Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, an almost universally acclaimed comedy-of-mortality about to tour on a wave of acclaim from London critics, there’s a sense of this sprightly outrageousness, too. But it doesn’t necessarily come from the 75-year-old Bennett himself: instead he puts a lot of dirty-old-manisms into the mouth of the great modernist poet WH Auden.
If you can get over the elderly perviness, you’ll find this tour of a National Theatre hit a fascinating evening. Bennett presents a series of boxes around the story of Auden’s fraught artistic relationship with Benjamin Britten, imagining the rehearsal of a play inspired by Auden in which actors playing Auden and Britten question their respective lives as artists. But there’s another frame in which Humphrey Carpenter interviews Auden in preparation for a biography, and yet another in which Auden and Britten meet late in life as the prim and buttoned-down Britten worries over his reputation in preparation for the paedophilic confessions that might be found in his Death in Venice.
All these barriers between fiction and reality serve to complicate, intriguingly, a series of questions about the role of the artist within a culture – romantic self-isolator? Commercial artisan? Moral saboteur? Bennett leaves the questions he raises open, just as he did with his 2004 hit, The History Boys. Meantime, inevitably, the question of to what extent the biography of an artist is an honest attempt to come to terms with his or her oeuvre, rather than a simple exercise in celebrity voyeurism, is also raised by Bennett, a man notoriously protective of his privacy. Yet even here, Bennett has his cake and eats it, leaving us with a mixed bag of valuable insight and throwaway trivia. What remains unquestionable is that this piece has provoked riotous laughter amidst all the pondering in London, and might well do the same in Glasgow.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tue 23–Sat 27 Nov