‘The Habit of Art’

‘The Habit of Art’ has been described as possibly one of the finest dramatic comedies of the past decade’’. The word comedy might be questioned by some, but no one can doubt the clever, complex writing. It has been immaculately scripted by Britain’s most admired and talented living playwright, Alan Bennett. At the age of 81, Bennett recently hit another zenith with the wonderful film, ‘The Lady in the Van’.

This Australian Premiere is about an ‘imagined likely’ meeting between the soft, apprehensive, Benjamin Britten and the brash, outspoken Wystan H. Auden; two geniuses of the Arts, but very different characters.

Britten was a wonderful musician and composer, possibly England’s best of the 20th century, being most famous for his 14 operas including ‘Peter Grimes’ and ‘Billy Budd’. Only months after becoming a Life Peer and Baron, Britten died aged 63, of a ‘heart attack’ which was in fact due to advanced syphilis contracted from his male partner, Peter Pears.

Auden’s friend, Isherwood, told him about Erika, the daughter of the Nobel winning German novelist, Thomas Mann – writer of ‘Death in Venice. In 1935, Erika’s sexy burlesque performances were considered obscene by the Nazis, and so she was desperate to escape from Germany, marry an Englishman and thus obtain a British passport. Auden obliged, but in doing so he did not consummate this marriage of convenience as he already had a partner – Chester Kallman.  Incidentally, another of Auden’s partners was Stephen Spender, the father of Barry Humphries’ (Dame Edna) wife.

This two and a quarter hour ADULT ‘play within a play’ can be seen at the Old Mill Theatre, on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road in South Perth (opposite Windsor Hotel). Performances start at 8.00 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 23rd April. The Sunday matinees are at 2.00 pm.

The scene is the present day in a rehearsal room of the National Theatre in London. There are no flats or scenery, other than a free standing door, representing the ‘door’ of Auden’s Oxford College flat.

At the rear of the stage are a grand and an upright piano. Anthony Howes’ set design has been constructed by Sarah Christiner and Phil Barnett – or perhaps deconstructed is more appropriate – as props (Justin Freind) are littered everywhere in this shambolic lecturer’s room. Stage managed by Dale James.

The variety of 1975 costumes were supplied by Jenny Prosser.

        To the side of the proscenium arch sit the play’s stage manager, Kay (Sally Barendse) with her ASM and prompt, George (Paul Bray). They announce to the cast that their director has been detained and they are going to step in and supervise the day’s rehearsal of ‘Caliban’s Day’. This play, built around a theme in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, is the work of dithering author, Neil (Brendan Ellis) who on arrival at the theatre finds that chunks have been removed from his writings.

        Donald (Barry Park) is the tense actor who is playing Humphrey Carpenter, a writer who is in the midst of writing Auden’s biography and is about to start Britten’s. Humphrey moves to the front of the stage and sets the scene.

        Seated at a table loaded with books is Fitz (Dene Irvin), the actor playing Wystan Auden. Auden, who is a fanatic for punctuality, is awaiting the arrival of Stuart (Cal Silberstein), a rent boy he has ordered for a particular service. (Warning, this service is described in great detail in the play). Throughout the play that is under rehearsal, the actors of Auden and Britten regularly request help from George the prompt (these prompts are in the script).

       The scene then moves to another area of the stage, where Benjamin Britten (Justin Freind) is auditioning for one of his operas, young choristers (alternating nights – Brandon Orgill, Matthew Han, Surjo Mazhar Sahid) who are under the supervision of their chaperone (Dale James) sing for him.

       After thirty years the two friends meet. By now Britten is a pathetic broken and insecure man, Auden? Well, he is just more abrasive and vulgar.

Perth born director, Anthony Howes, has been recognised as a major contributor to the theatrical arts in Australia, being awarded most of the major national theatrical awards. His productions have been seen in Australia, the UK (at the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells Theatre), Canada, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam and Thailand.

Howes has also directed for the ABC in radio and television, and he helped found the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, where he was artistic director for 25 years.

The lighting (designed by John Woolrych) had a most effective closing scene. The operator for both the sound and lighting was Sarah Christiner.

The cast gave outstanding and sympathetic performances, there was genuine depth to the personalities. The dialogue was perfectly paced, which considering the complexity of the script, working on two or three levels, it passed seamlessly between locations. There was an expectation that the audience would know the people referred to, this meant the need for an especially careful delivery.

Don’t expect a comedy like the ‘The Lady in the Van’; don’t expect the play within a play to be like that in Á Midsummer Night’s Dream’. You will find it hard to find better acting, directing and scriptwriting, as this is advanced quality theatre. The audience will be divided – black and white, with no shades of grey – you will love it or loathe it. I would like to see it again and really get a better understanding of the multifaceted personalities. It is certainly worth seeing. You will admire it on many levels, but you may not like it.