Sell-out performances meant that I missed seeing The Habit of Art when it was at the National Theatre in London; however, judicious booking of plays at Nottingham's Theatre Royal means such potentially missed opportunities are not entirely lost.
The touring version of The Habit of Art arrived in Nottingham last night and runs till Saturday and I would certainly urge people to attend, either here or at one of the following venues (it continues to Leeds, Newcastle and Glasgow).
I never used to like Alan Bennett: I think that earlier in my life I found his work too domestic (the monologues never really connected with me). Looking back, I probably just missed the biting edge that his work - with hindsight - I now he has always had. But I do believe that his later career has brought that viciousness to the fore --- and in a good way.
The first piece I truly fell in love with was A Question of Attribution, which I still vividly recall watching on TV. It was about art - though not really of course - which was why I loved it. From that point I felt I was beginning to 'get' Bennett's wicked humour, his misanthropy, and of course the swearing and attitude to sex.
The Habit of Art is a real tour de force: enormously clever in its staging (wonderfully transferred from the capacious National to the more intimate confines of Nottingham's Theatre Royal), it is a truly 'meta' play --- with actors playing actors working through a rehearsal of playing their roles. There's also an especially satisfying and entertaining link to "the production of Uncle Vanya next door". With an engaged audience as well, there's even opportunity for breaking the fourth wall - particularly well exploited by Malcolm Sinclair, whose arch Henry made some beautifully timed glances out to the enraptured attendees.
The play, which dramatises a fictional encounter between the poet Auden and composer Britten, is more than just funny though. It is also incredibly moving and rather profound about a number of issues --- art (in all its forms), relationships (friendly and taboo), and the stages of life (from innocent 'childhood' to old age).
It is a wonderful cast (they were also remarkably charming afterwards as well as I was lucky enough to attend a 'meet the cast' event afterwards) and testament to the talent that the National can draw upon for its touring productions. Desmond Barrit, Selina Cadell and Sinclair head the cast in the three key roles, but EVERYONE plays a great part in the overall tone of the production of this great play. I hope they enjoy the rest of their time in Nottingham and for the remainder of the tour.
If you can, go see this if you haven't been lucky enough already..