After the huge success of The History Boys there's been renewed interest in Don't-Call-Him-A-National-Treasure Alan Bennett, and much anticipation for his new play. Where THB saw him look back at schooldays, The Habit of Art shows his more current preoccupations, as it visits two artists near the end of their careers. WH Auden had written librettos for Benjamin Britten's operas in the 1930s and '40s but the two subsequently fell out and never met again. Bennett imagines one final meeting between the poet and the composer in 1972, and to make comments about his own chosen field he frames this as a play-within-a-play. So the setting is one of the National Theatre's rehearsal rooms, where Stage Manager Kay (Frances de la Tour) is supervising a run-through of a play called Caliban's Day. The director has been called away suddenly, the playwright (Elliot Levey) is back after a few days away and isn't aware of some of the changes that have been made, and the actor playing Auden (Richard Griffiths) hasn't learned his lines yet and keeps demanding changes.
So the play-within-a-play sees Britten (Alex Jennings) seek out his old collaborator when he loses his nerve about adapting Death in Venice into an opera. The theme of an old man falling in love with a young boy is clearly autobiographical, and Auden believes Britten's problem is that he's not being open enough about this. The Caliban figure of the title is Stuart (Stephen Wight,) a rent-boy whom Auden has hired, and who fulfils a purpose inspired by an Auden poem, of a seemingly minor character getting to tell his own side of the story at the end. During the "rehearsal" we have a lot of interruptions from the cast and crew, and Bennett gives Griffiths' characters some interesting contrasts - as Auden he's gruffly gay, filthy and happy to pee in the sink (even in company) while the actor Fitz is straight, self-important and rather prissy. Both Auden and Britten's biographies were written by Humphrey Carpenter, so he's made the narrator of Caliban's Day; the actor playing him (Adrian Scarborough) keeps trying to beef up his role, which again reflects on an issue the real author had - having written Carpenter into the play, Bennett had to be careful not to let such a colourful character take over.
As with any play-within-a-play setup it sounds a lot more complicated than it is to watch, and it deals interestingly with the issue of great artists who may not necessarily be such great people. It's also constantly funny as you'd expect from Bennett, with some great lines and actors who know how to speak them. Once again though it's de la Tour who stole the show for me, her dry delivery being so well-suited to the lines, and although her most memorable line isn't anything like as filthy as the one she got in THB she still gets a similar response. Her character alse gets to serve as a second Caliban figure at the end of the framing device. Meanwhile this play might have ended the year with a scrolling frontal nudity alert, but this is Alan Bennett after all and it'd be wrong if he didn't hold back a little - so while Stephen Wight's character offers to do the rent-boy's nude scene in rehearsal, the prudish Fitz insists he keep his clothes on. Fortunately the play's too good for that omission to spoil it.
The Habit of Art by Alan Bennnett is booking until the 6th of April at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.