Theatre Review: The Habit Of Art, Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Playhouse Theatre

Written By: Andrea Young

Format: Play
Genre: Drama
Date: October 23 2018
Location: Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool

“Why are plays always such a performance?” asks Neil (Robert Mountford), writer of Caliban’s Day, the play within the play in this first revival of Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art.

The Habit Of Art is a play about performance in our everyday lives, the roles we create for ourselves, and the roles people assign to us, whether they are close to reality or not. It is about The Habit Of Art that Auden and Britten dress themselves up in, and with which they are adorned by others. It is a habit that they cannot – and do not want to – shake off. Do not be put off by having no prior knowledge of the poems of Auden, or the operas of Britten.

This is also a play about love in all its forms, and more than anything, about a love affair with art itself. Both Britten and Auden are painted as ultimately at the mercy of the arts and everything that brings. Even when Fitz (Matthew Kelly) forgets his lines, he shouts “yes” for his prompt – the affirmation that says he will continue to endure as an actor, and will do so with a hunger for more.

The rest of the actors of Caliban’s Day, when out of role, express this same love for their craft. It is a love that is dizzying and frightening – but most of all, they want to be loved back. Donald (John Wark) outwardly demonstrates this craving more than any of the others, leading to moments that move from the highly comedic to the heartbreaking.

The adage that showbusiness is a family also comes to pass in this play – but like all families, there can be disagreements, differences in outlook and fights for attention – and more often than not, someone feels left out. Kay, the company stage manager, discusses how actors are just like children. They need to be guided, nurtured and looked after by someone, but most of all, they want attention. The ending of the play is a masterstroke in bringing this innate idea to the fore.

The play is not for the easily offended; the actors of Caliban’s Day break character to muse on the morality of the private lives of Britten and Auden that they are depicting. There is frank discussion of rent boys and desire for younger boys. The morality of sex and desire, and definitions of predator and prey, is explored with mastery by Alan Bennett’s outstanding script.

Matthew Kelly is a tour-de-force in both the play and the play within a play. Despite his character wanting to leave rehearsals for the ‘proper acting’ of a voiceover for Tesco (and his cast members being worried about him forgetting his lines), when in role as Auden, he gives a breathtaking insight into a magnetic personality who could be cruel and coarse, while widely-loved. He manages vast amounts of dialogue with aplomb, and is a pleasure to watch.

The character of Henry (David Yelland) is slightly underutilised for the first third of the play. However, when in character as Britten, and meeting Auden for the first time in decades, the chemistry between the two is electric. Their moment of reunion is full of warmth, guilt, pain and respect, despite their disagreements.

There are no staging changes at all. Instead, the classic proscenium arch is relied on to frame, and to create a frame within a frame, which works extremely well in supporting the multi-layered structure of the play itself.

The movement between the actors in role and the actors at the end of a scene is seamless, and all of their performances show that they too, are in love with The Habit Of Art.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent