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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Habit of Art preview, interview with Desmond Barrit

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Theatre preview: Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art

IF YOU struggle to think who Desmond Barrit reminds you of in The Habit Of Art, don't blame yourself. The actor's inspiration for the part of WH Auden comes from such an unlikely source you would never guess it. "Nicholas Hytner, who directed the play, said to me: 'Think Maggie Smith,'" says the actor. "That was my note about how he should sound. A bit like WH Auden and a bit like Maggie Smith."
And the subject matter of Alan Bennett's play is even more unlikely. Set in 1972, The Habit Of Art is about a fictional meeting between Auden, the celebrated English poet and polemicist, and the composer Benjamin Britten. In real life, the two men collaborated with each other on a couple of song cycles in the 1930s, but in Bennett's version, we find them 25 years after their last meeting, and a year before Auden's death, discussing Britten's forthcoming opera, an adaptation of Thomas Mann's Death In Venice.

It sounds like box-office suicide. Who else but Bennett could get away with such an esoteric sounding subject? It doesn't help that it's not just about Auden and Britten, but also the two actors who play them on stage. Yet far from being an elitist curio or a theatrical in-joke, The Habit Of Art is a run-away hit. On its London debut at the National Theatre last year, the Daily Telegraph called it "an absolute cracker", the Independent said it was "hilariously provocative" and now it is doing storming business on a UK tour. Some have suggested it is even better than The History Boys. At 75, Bennett is still performing the unexpected, challenging preconceptions and taking audiences with him.

"If you went to a play that had Auden sitting on one side of the stage and Britten on the other and it went on for two-and-a-half hours, then it could be soporific," says Barrit, who played Hector in the stage version of The History Boys. "But what the audience see is a brick-by-brick replica of the number one rehearsal room at the National Theatre. You see them rehearsing this play which is about the meeting of Auden and Britten, but it keeps dropping out to the actors talking, so there are lots of theatrical devices. That makes it much more accessible."

Just as you don't have to know anything about single-sex grammar schools to appreciate The History Boys, you don't have to be an expert on either of his new play's protagonists to enjoy The Habit Of Art. It tells you enough about the men to give a flavour of what they were like and leaves you to fill in the details in your own time. Rather than get bogged down in minutiae, Bennett uses their relationship and his play-within-a-play conceit to consider such universal themes as sexuality, creativity and ethics.

"One character says acting is like being a soldier, you've got to fight for your existence, and as you get older, the fighting gets harder," says Barrit. "That's exactly what it's like. Life doesn't get any easier as you get older. You're not out to impress quite so much, but you're very concerned about what people think of you in your career. There's somebody on the stage that everybody can identify with and that makes Alan's plays accessible."

Hard to overlook in the story is a theme the once closeted Bennett would have tried to sidestep. Although very different personalities, both Auden and Britten were gay. Auden openly enjoyed the company of prostitutes and pursed an active sex life, while Britten had an unconsummated passion for young boys and channelled his repressed sexual energy into his music.

In the play, the composer frets that the theme of Death In Venice, which depicts an older man's passion for a young boy, reveals too much about himself. Auden, meanwhile, confuses his biographer for a rent boy.

"He doesn't give an opinion about their sexuality - he just reports it," says Barrit. "It's not an issue, but it's discussed. The other thing Auden was preoccupied with was time. After 6pm, he can't have sex. You're just going to have this big sex scene with a rent boy, the clock strikes six, and he says, 'Too late.' Once people get over the shock, they're laughing."

They are also revelling in the language of a writer who has acquired the status of national treasure.

"It's very distinctively Alan Bennett," he says. "Of all the playwrights in the country, Alan Bennett and Shakespeare are the most recognisable. If you were given two lines, you wouldn't have to know much about the plays to know it was Bennett."

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tuesday until Saturday.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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