Artists in their late work often feel free to digress and experiment. Alan Bennett takes full advantage of this licence in a multi-levelled work that deals with sex, death, creativity, biography and much else besides. And, while it may not possess the universal resonance of The History Boys, the play has the characteristic Bennett mix of wit and wistfulness.
The structure is certainly complex. We are watching a rehearsal, in the National Theatre itself, of a play called Caliban's Day: one that, inspired by Auden's The Sea and the Mirror, gives voice to the unregarded.
The setting, however, is the cluttered Christ Church lodging of Auden himself in his twilit 1972 days. In the first half we see the poet being interviewed by his future biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, who is initially mistaken for a rent boy. And in the second, far superior, part we watch an imagined encounter between Auden and Benjamin Britten.
If one adds that Carpenter steps out of the action to become a choric commentator and that the actors constantly question the on-stage author about his text, it will be seen that the play has enough layers to make Pirandello blanch. At times, there is so much scaffolding you can't always see the main property. And, although Bennett seems to endorse Auden's point that "a lot of what is passed off as biography is idle curiosity," he is not above indulging our appetite for gossip about Auden's insistence on sexual punctuality.
There is also a hint of sentimentality in Bennett's claim that figures such as the rent boy are marginalised when great men's lives are parcelled out for posterity: it seems especially untrue in the case of Britten when books have been devoted to his relationships.
But Bennett's play is at its strongest when it deals with the theme implicit in its title: the idea that, for the artist, creativity is a constant, if troubling imperative. We see this in the beautifully written encounter between Britten and Auden. Temperamentally, the two men could hardly be more different: the one a model of restraint, the other an apostle of sexual freedom and something of an intellectual bully. But Britten's anxieties about Death in Venice, and his fear that it may be an act of self-revelation, are movingly countered by Auden's desperate desire to be involved in the libretto. It never happened; but it acquires an imaginative plausibility and shows two great artists, towards the end of their lives, united in their belief in the power of the creative impulse. As Auden himself says, "what matters is the work".
A play that could easily seem tricksy is also given a superbly fluid production by Nicholas Hytner and is beautifully acted. Richard Griffiths bears no physical resemblance to Auden but he becomes a vivid metaphor for the poet. At the same time, Griffiths reminds us of the tetchy actor who is simply playing a role. Alex Jennings offers an equally potent echo of the angst-ridden Britten, spitting out the name of "Tippett" with calculated asperity. Adrian Scarborough as Carpenter and Frances de la Tour as the stage manager are no less magnetic.
The latter has a speech about the parade of plays that have given the National Theatre a weathered use that eloquently epitomises the basic theme of Bennett's deeply moving play: the ennobling power, in art, of sheer diurnal persistence.
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Guardian: Theatre review | Alan Bennett | The Habit of Art
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