Stage Raw: The Habit of Art
NEW REVIEW GO THE HABIT OF ART
By Paul Birchall
If you want to see director Nicholas Hytner's smart and compelling production of Alan Bennett's new drama at the National Theater of Great Britain, you could certainly fly to London, endure the hideous exchange rate, and fight your way to the South Bank through the Civil War that's sure to erupt between Labour, Conservatives, and LibDems. Or, if that's a little too much trouble, you could just shlep on over to the Mann's Chinese Theater this Sunday at 2, where the National Theatre is going to re-broadcast their live taping of the April 22 matinee performance of the piece.
Bennett's play, the latest work by the author of the Tony Award-winning The History Boys and the Oscar-winning Madness of King George,
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is an intellectual marvel, teeming with articulate, brittle, but
emotionally charged dialogue and flawed, adroitly rendered
characterizations. It imagines a meeting, in the early 70s, between
decaying literary lion W. H. Auden (Richard Griffiths) and composer
Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) about the possibility of Auden writing
the libretto for Britten's intended opera of Death in Venice.
craggy-faced, slatternly Auden is languishing in filthy, forgotten
squalor in an Oxford apartment, where his literary reputation is at
odds with his depressing reality - early in the play, when a BBC
reporter (Adrian Scarborough) shows up to interview him, Auden at first
mistakes him for a male prostitute and orders him to take down his
When the uptight, emotionally rigid Britten, Auden's estranged
friend from long ago, subsequently arrives for an unexpected visit, the
strained interactions between the two great men are interspersed with bitchy cut ins, with the ensemble
playing actors rehearsing the play we're seeing, replete with uptight
stage manager (Frances De La Tour) and author (Elliot Levey) bickering
over the goings on.
Hytner's staging, which crisply shifts from the
inner play to the rehearsal scenes, artfully embraces a variety of
compelling themes - the play's an elegy to human decline, a celebration
of the theater, and an analysis of the toll demanded by the creation of
art - all within the context of dialogue so full of sharp exchanges you
could cut your gums on them.
The Habit of Art is the latest in the
National Theatre's season of high definition broadcasts, originally
aired live to movie theaters around the world. However, clever theater
managers have discovered that there's no reason why the live broadcast
can't be replayed for more audiences at a later date. Although it is no
substitute for the power of a live experience, it is not a bad thing if
one doesn't feel like a 10 hour plane flight.
Mann's Chinese Theater 6,
6801 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood. Sunday May 16 at 2. http://www.ntlive.com
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