The Habit of Art, review: filmed performance, Devonshire Park Theatre, March 18

Last Wednesday, I slipped into a closed performance of The Habit of Art at the Devonshire Park Theatre.

Tuesday, 24th March 2020, 6:02 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th March 2020, 10:34 am
Matthew Kelly and David Yelland in The Habit of Art. Photo by Helen Maybanks
Matthew Kelly and David Yelland in The Habit of Art. Photo by Helen Maybanks

But the habit of theatre-going itself was about to be closed off.

Primed, perfected and ready to go – on a ten-venue UK tour – Philip Franks’ production for The Original Theatre Company had fallen victim to the Wretched Virus. With a smart bit of original thinking, producer Alastair Whatley and his colleagues magicked up a film company to capture the performance, with plans to make it available online in the coming days.

A slightly surreal afternoon, like a glorified dress-and-tech rehearsal, with just a dozen or so in the audience, began like a salvage operation but it finished with sense of triumph. Alan Bennett’s engaging, many-layered play is delivered here with intelligence, wit and humanity.

Fittingly, in the circumstances, the show is framed as a “play within a play”. The action opens on a cluttered rehearsal room, where Veronica Roberts is a benevolent matriarch of a company manager – a female Peter Quint, almost. Author Neil – a credibly neurotic Robert Mountford – watches edgily as the rather motley company attempt to make sense of his oeuvre.

Bullish John Wark is a frustrated journalist/biographer, while ASM George – a versatile Jessica Dennis – reads in for the inevitable absentees. And Ben Chandler breezes in as a cheerfully impertinent rent boy: the sexual innuendo isn’t even innuendo, but then Alan Bennett doesn’t write in euphemisms.

They may sound a quite disparate crew, but it all fits, rather like a comfy old sweater. And inhabiting not only the sweater itself, but the character of WH Auden, is the immaculate Matthew Kelly. Imagine a great poet, a scholarly cerebral academic – and you would be far wide of Matthew’s portrayal. This Auden is gruff, irascible yet insecure. His features are as lived-in as the pullover, his body creaks and shuffles. But his command of language – in conversation or in poetry – is exquisite.

The first act is really only preamble, enjoyable but inconclusive. Act Two brings writing and acting of the very highest quality. Bennett creates an imagined meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten, who had collaborated on an early Britten opera before falling out many years before.

The chemistry is compelling and the acting is magnificent. David Yelland’s Britten is hesitant, brittle, a little precious. He is working on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, a story that dances uncomfortably on the edge of (then) illegal themes. Benjamin needs Wyston as librettist, but more so for a reassurance that the older man cannot give. We are now a decade on from the play’s National Theatre premiere, but in the hands of Yelland and Kelly, this portrayal bears every comparison.

Now, the theatres are dark. The voices are dumbed, and the spirits are numbed. The country and the world have an agenda for survival, and the arts, you may say, are irrelevant or at best incidental – and you would be absolutely right. We are in the hands of the dedication and skills of medics and scientists, and the judgement of political leaders, and there is no claim on special status for a bunch of actors.

But like so many other groups and professions, performers have been hit hard. Livelihoods, and the survival of an enterprise like The Original Theatre Company, are on the line. Their employment prospects have shrunk overnight. They’ll need to be patient, resilient, and to make and mend.

The dear old Devonshire Park has survived two World Wars, not to mention the Boer War, and a thousand and one productions of varying quality. It will still be standing in a few weeks or months, or even in a year from now. On one level, it will feel as if we have never been away; but on another level, we will be changed. And, ironically, that is what theatre does. And so do poetry or writing, or music, or the visual or expressive arts. They entertain us, but they also enrich us and change us.

The “habit of art” – the values, the messages, the insights, the beauty; the capacity to surprise, to provoke, to subvert; the imagination that can rip a story off the page and bring it to life; the creative spirit and the unshakeable belief in human beings – all of this will outlive and outlast any wretched virus, and the Habit of Art will take the stage again and fill those theatres. And all the other companies and artists, up and down the country, will burst with new life and energy and creativity. Yes, we will be changed and chastened, but we will fill the stalls once again. Hold on tight.

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The website to access the stream is now live. Visit www.originaltheatreonline.com.

The film will be released for the first online streaming at 8.15pm on Thursday, March 26, and will be available online until June 2.

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