Alan Bennett’s much-anticipated The Habit of Art, now at London’s National Theatre, is a rich and layered work, amusing in a gentle way, and perhaps more rewarding intellectually than emotionally, It hangs on a fictitious meeting between the poet WH Auden (Richard Griffiths) and the composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) in Oxford in 1972, when both men were nearing the end of their lives. Britten is writing a new opera based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and he has come to Auden for reassurance that it is a work worth pursuing.
Bennett presents this encounter through the form of a play-within-a-play called Caliban’s Day, which is being rehearsed by a company of actors backstage at the National while the director is away at a conference in Leeds. Whenever problems and question surface about how to perform their scenes, the actors break character and stage manager Kay (Frances de la Tour) must step in to soothe and placate.
This allows Bennett to write a play about two creative and brilliant men in their twilight years and also explore the processes involved in staging such a thing and the decisions that need to be made, although any talk of making cuts causes the rather sulky writer, Neil (Elliot Levey), to flick his hair and frown.
The fear that biography is anti-art ripples through the play. Meanwhile, the contemplative central scenes in which the two men discuss their lives, their homosexuality. and the habits of their art are balanced with more playful moments involving a horrifying latex Auden mask and actors popping in from playing Chekhov still clad in their Russian winter furs.
Griffiths and Jennings both negotiate their double performances nimbly, playing actors Fitz and Henry as well as the characters they portray, while de la Tour is a reasonable and calming presence as Kay, urging the play forwards with her constant calls of ‘on’.
Director Nicholas Hytner capably handles the shifts in tone, but the play’s continual self-interrogation ends up diminishing its potential emotional force. In the end, de la Tour’s final hymn to the power of plays is more effective then Bennett’s fractured imagining of two men facing the sunset of their art.