james debate
james debate

Friday, 29 January 2010

Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Written by Alan Bennett
Starring Richard Griffiths
Theatre Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre

the habit of art

"Witty and layered" describes Alan Bennett's latest work. A play within a play, essentially, observing a rehearsal of a play called "Caliban's Day", inspired by W.H. Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror", The Habit of Art deals with sex, creativity and the nature of perception, providing much food for thought for the audience.

This play within a play is set in the disturbingly messy and waste-filled flat of Auden, widely thought of as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and tells a story that focuses largely on the power of the creative driving force that possesses artists, while juxtaposing this with the vile mess and sexual perversions of Auden himself, a seeming acknowledgement of one of Auden's lines within the play that "a lot of what is passed off as biography is idle curiosity."

These issues are explored largely through two scenes, one an interview between Auden and his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, and another a meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten. This is bookended by the witty observations and interactions of the "production staff" and the "author", offering a clearer insight into the process of creativity as alluded to in the play within a play.

It all works because the production is seamlessly brought together by the director Nicholas Hytner, and because of Richard Griffiths, who is fantastic as always and adds an energy to the proceedings, like a big dynamo. But while I focus on him, it is worth noting that the acting was pretty excellent across the board.

That being said, it's a thought provoking and enjoyable play, without ever verging on the mantle of the 'truly great'. It's fine at what it does, but there is nothing about this play that years from now I will look back on.

Ultimately though, this is one of the better plays on at the moment, and well worth the price of entry. Go check it out while it's still on.

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