There was a day in London in early February, and it was a good day for Hannahs to enjoy birthdays.
It started with one Hannah giving the other Hannah the gift of waking up far too early in the morning. After defeating the brutal winds of icy hatred on the Hungerford Bridge, the Hannahs triumphed in their quest to be early-bird-gets-the-rush-Alan-Bennett-play-ticket-worm lasses.
In between the ticket purchasing and the ticket using, the Hannahs filled several pleasurable hours with appropriately-birthday themed adventures:
Then, the play.
The Habit of Art
To be honest, I feel less sure of how to talk about this play, Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, than I did about The Invention of Love, and yet I enjoyed Bennett’s play a dozen, nay, fifty times more. Thinking back, both plays deal with similar concepts and tensions, including (hopefully) past taboos of homosexual love and desire, the nature of friendship and how it can but may not change over time, and the value of intellectual and artistic pursuits.
Both also focus and extrapolate on the lives and thoughts of real artists (writers, scholars, musicians), with Bennett’s play a multi-layered construction wherein the (real) actors Richard Griffith and Alex Jennings play actors rehearsing a play in which they play the poet W. H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten respectively.
And yes, I realise my use of the word “play” there outdid my previous use of the word “theatre”, but I feel that this linguistic repetition almost encapsulates the complex and intertwined synchronicity of the play’s (there I go again) many stories.
Richard Griffiths as Fitz playing W. H. Auden was magnificent at portraying an actor’s insecurities about the likability of his character, while also providing many a laugh through Fitz’ interjections about the other actors, about cake, and about his desire to wear a mask. (Hold out for the mask. It’s brilliant.)
Alex Jennings created an incredible atmosphere of sadness, longing, tension, and a sense of being lost when inhabiting Benjamin Britten, yet also hammed it up marvelously when switching roles from Britten to one of Auden’s cleaners in order to fill in for an absent actor (at the level of the play being rehearsed… not the play we were watching… oh, I fear I’ve lost you again).
The more I try to write about this play the more I find myself tangled up. There’s a rent boy and there’s a biographer, who both meets Auden and somewhat “hovers” as an omniscient presence throughout; there’s Frances de la Tour as the stage manager who magnificently strokes her actors’ egos in a delightfully patronising way; there’s the author of the play-within-the-play who can’t stand how the actors keep getting in the way of his script; and there are hilarious, cringe-worthy speeches from Auden’s furniture, which are all the more entertaining for the smirks of the actors giving them.
I have to give up. I feel like this post is a tangle of yarn that I have no hope of unravelling, yet I must say that this play, with its mix of laughter, longing and sadness, and its glimpses into the creation of music, theatre, writing, and poetry, was very likely the highlight of my London experience.
For that I thank you, H.CarryOn, and wish you another happy birthday, almost one month on. I wish you were here in Belgium to take me on more magical mystery theatre adventures.