Review: The Habit Of Art

Date: 24/10/2018

Prostitutes, dirty trousers and a love of young boys. In The Habit Of Art this is what two of the 20th Century’s finest artistic minds have come to in the probably-awful Caliban’s Day, a production centred around a fictional meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in their twilight days. That this takes place within another story – a troupe of cast and crew rehearsing the play – somehow focuses and refracts Alan Bennett’s study of life, work and death.

Auden is mouldering away in early 70s Oxford, rescued from America but ailing. Although he is revered he is also considered redundant – Kelly plays him as a dirty old man in many ways, but there’s clearly still brilliance behind the barbs and squalor. Britten, stuffier and more upright, pays Auden an unexpected visit 30 years on from their previous acquaintance – apparently requiring help with a libretto for an opera based on Death In Venice.

Through the device of the play-within-a-play Bennett tackles life, the universe – and sucking off. It’s a little tawdry in places, hilarious in others but otherwise it straddles a line somewhere between whimsy and wistfulness. There’s a sense of people coming to terms with things, making sense of their lives.

Matthew Kelly and David Yelland lead a strong, tight cast whose dual roles allow them to provide context, background – and perhaps reflect a little of what goes on between the two old buggers, a rentboy and a biographer. When Auden and Britten enjoy their affectionate but spiky dialogue the production is wonderfully enjoyable.

Britten is stricken with anxiety over his work… Auden – with a face like a scrotum – is desperate to be involved..

Britten is stricken with anxiety that his opera might reveal more than he intends; Auden – rude, with a face like a scrotum yet still sympathetic – is desperate to be involved. Both are driven by the imperative to work and, perhaps, the knowledge that time is short. It never happened, but it feels authentic.

There’s a bit of a question mark over whether it’s a bit much to have your characters complain about the dick jokes in a play within a play – how much of it is self-reflexive and how much is Bennett giving himself an out if left up to the viewer.

One might also ponder the career trajectory of Matthew Kelly. Without wishing to vulgar, it’s hard to imagine he needs the money. Why, then, put himself through what must be a genuine feat – yes of talent, but also of recollection, endurance… Perhaps, as with Auden and Britten, the work, the art is always the thing with performers. Without out, the audience is invite to ponder, what is left?

The Habit Of Art
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 27 October