— Production photo
THE HABIT OF ART
Daring to open its season during the Fringe Festival, United Players is offering counter-programming with a vengeance. Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, getting its Canadian premiere under the direction of X-Files Smoking Man William B. Davis, may be the ultimate anti-Fringe play: talky, very artsy, rather highbrow and deeply English. Does it translate for a Vancouver audience? That, m'love, is the question.
Bennett has had success with previous stage plays-become-movies, The Madness of King George and The History Boys. But his subjects here are more arcane than a crazy king or a group of public school lads. The Habit of Art imagines a meeting between two English artists not exactly intimately known in North American circles, poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, in Auden's rooms at Oxford in 1972.
Complicating matters, their meeting takes place in a play-within-the-play. We watch a rehearsal at London's National Theatre of a contemporary play called Caliban's Day about Auden, Britten, their biographer, and a rentboy Auden has hired to fellate. The comic tensions and frustrations among the playwright, the actors and the stage manager who tries desperately to keep them all on task add to the complex tapestry--the habits of artists of various kinds and degrees of talent--that Bennett weaves.
Centre stage is Auden, or rather an actor named Fitz (John Prowse, excellent from beginning to end), playing him in Caliban's Day. Long past his poetic prime, Auden is a wildly eccentric shabby alcoholic addicted to sex with young men like Stuart (Christofer Pritchett).
Late in the play he's visited by his old friend Britten (a solid Murray Price), who shares his sexual tastes. At the height of his success, Britten has come for help with his new opera, Death in Venice, the story of an older man's obsession with a beautiful young boy. Auden would love to get his mojo back by writing the libretto.
None of this is entirely radical or unfamiliar. It echoes other British plays like Michael Frayn's backstage farce Noises Off and Tom Stoppard's witty, literate comic dramas about art and artists. But Bennett is not nearly as funny as Frayn nor as witty as Stoppard. And he takes for granted his audience's knowledge of his protagonists' lives, art and histories that most Vancouverites are unlikely to have. Theatrical in-jokes involving Britain's National Theatre also mean little without the cultural context.
That said, play and production are full of enjoyable moments. Tall, skinny Kurtis Maguire is delightful as an actor named Donald portraying biographer Humphrey Carpenter, whose role in the play-within-the-play is ambiguous at best. Maguire's characters' struggles and Donald's attempts to expand his part--like all actors with secondary roles are wont to do--get well-deserved laughs, especially an outrageous musical number in drag that Donald proposes to add to the script.
Joan Bryans is a treat as the veteran stage manager who likes telling stories about Larry (Olivier), John G (Gielgud) and Alec (Guinness), their actorly short cuts and neuroses. Mac Dodge does good work as the playwright frustrated by everyone's wanting to change his words, but I never really believed his character capable of writing a play as weird as Caliban's Day, with its nudity, explicit sex (all just suggested, not shown, in The Habit of Art), and musical interludes in which furniture and even the creases on Auden's face sing and dance.
Considering the importance of Britten in the play and the fact that Brian G. Ball's busy set includes three working pianos, music plays a surprisingly minor role in the proceedings. We do hear a good deal of intelligent discussion about the habits of art, but in the end the sexual habits of these particular artists, and a debate about out gay sexuality versus its sublimation, take precedence.