A multi-layered evening at the Playhouse
By Katrina ffiske
Habit of Art was an enormous success when it was first produced at The National Theatre in 2009. Thanks to Wiltshire Creative, Salisbury is hosting a revival of this play-within-a-play, telling of a fictional meeting between ageing poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in 1973, directed by Philip Franks.
Salisbury Playhouse was packed and there was a buzz of anticipation and the play lived up to expectations. Starring Matthew Kelly, as actor Fitz, portraying Auden, and David Yelland, as actor Henry, portraying Britten.
The opening scene is smoothly directed, the actors and crew arriving, for a day of rehearsals, for a play called Caliban’s Day. Adrian Linford’s set is cram packed and seemingly chaotic but you are quickly transported to a rehearsal studio, with Auden’s sparsely decorated flat, and filthy kitchen in the centre, Britten’s rehearsal studio with piano at the back.
We experience a day in the life of theatre. Veronica Roberts, as stage manager Kay, is excellent, controlling the day’s rehearsal, calling everyone ‘darling’, calming actors and playwrights down as they have their disagreements over lines being cut or added.
Particularly good is John Wark’s Donald (portraying Auden and Britten’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter). Donald has a difficult role interviewing Auden in the first half and in the second half merely watching Auden and Britten taking notes, giving the audience the odd aside. Donald gives light relief throwing childish tantrums because he does not have a bigger part to play – he is only a device a wants more from his character.
The play is multi-layered but the main theme is exploring the friendship between two highly successful artists. Matthew Kelly is faultless, with an extraordinary resemblance to Auden so the moment he started playing Auden, we are transported to his grimy flat in Oxford listening to the man himself.
David Yelland as Benjamin Britten/Henry is also very convincing showing Britten as the more restrained character. We are introduced to him as he auditions choir- boys for his forthcoming opera “Death in Venice”.
As they discuss their lives we watch two men discussing their past and present relationships. Stuart the rent boy (the actor Tim, played by Benjamin Chandler), appears through the play acting creating another device for upfront discussion on sexuality.
Overall the audience are drawn into the strength of their friendship, and the angst that being successful artists brings. Despite this tension throughout the play in true Bennett style he has us laughing at many very funny and clever one-liners.