Friday, April 30, 2010

The Habit of Art

The Habit of Art
by Alan Bennet
Thu, April 29th at 7pm
Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Berkeley

This NTLive movie theater screening of Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art was really NTLive-from-last-week, being a recording of a performance in the Lyttleton on April 22nd. This ungainly & tricky play takes place during a full rehearsal of a play called Caliban's Day, about a fictional meeting between W.H. Auden & Benjamin Britten as older men. The seamless, realistic set, reproducing a rehearsal room at the National Theatre, makes a big impression right from the start. We begin with the actors arriving for work, then we see them run through the play-within-a-play. It all happens in real time, even the intermission, during which some of the actors & crew remain on stage having a coffee break. The playwright is present, & there are frequent interruptions. This allows Alan Bennett to comment on issues like the insecurity of actors & the nature of the theatrical experience. He covers a lot of thematic ground, & I would always be momentarily confused when the actors broke out of the play-within-a-play.

In the minimal plot, an aging Auden, neglected & going to seed, is visited by the more successful Britten. Britten comes off rather badly here, insecure in his attempt to make an opera out of Death in Venice & harboring an unjustifiable personal defense of his relationships with young boys. The play-within-a-play makes a stand for nameless boys he may have exploited sexually as a form of artistic license. There's a great deal of comedy as well, & the play-within-a-play may not actually be that good, with its goofy interludes of talking furniture & its journalist narrator who is not quite in & not quite out of the action. In a mistaken identity scene he defensively declares, "I'm not a rent boy. I went to Keble!" I was also very amused when one of the actors wanders in "from the Chekov matinee."

The performances are terrific. I especially liked Frances de la Tour's weary yet nurturing stage manager. She doesn't seem to be acting. Richard Griffiths as Auden is every inch An Actor & never seems hampered by his huge girth. The screening was well attended by a somewhat older audience. At first I plopped myself down in the first convenient empty seat, not realizing that all the seats are assigned for these shows.

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