Monday, May 17, 2010

Recipe for depression: number two

As the new barbarism (with value added tax at 20%) closes in, we have to wonder how much the Arts will suffer under the new "modernising" tendency. One looks long and hard for the cultured, the erudite, the reader among our new Master Race.

So, today, the Lady in his Life and Malcolm betook themselves on an outing, before the darkness closed in.

It started with a very pleasant lunch, reasonably-priced because it was just far enough away from the tourist-trap that is London's Covent Garden, accompanied by a rather nice bottle of red Cab. Then on to the National Theatre for the crusties' mat-in-ay of The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett's invention of an end-of-life encounter between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten. There are enough reviews around for passers-by to check it out:

Chirstopher Hart [sic] in the Times gave it four stars and reckoned it was sub-Brechtian:
Nicholas Hytner’s direction is a perfect match for Bennett’s charm here, and the performances are a treat. Frances de la Tour as Kay the stage manager is hilarious, for ever having to reassure her actors, to soothe their little tantrums and wipe away their tears. The only real weakness in the piece is the introduction of a rent boy called Stuart, an unconvincing shovelling of A Sympathetic Member of the Working Classes into these cosy proceedings, to make some point about inequality, social injustice and so forth. It’s all as woolly as a Marks & Spencer cardie.
In the Guardian, Michael Billington, also on four stars, is more to the point:
Bennett's play is at its strongest when it deals with the theme implicit in its title: the idea that, for the artist, creativity is a constant, if troubling imperative. We see this in the beautifully written encounter between Britten and Auden. Temperamentally, the two men could hardly be more different: the one a model of restraint, the other an apostle of sexual freedom and something of an intellectual bully. But Britten's anxieties about Death in Venice, and his fear that it may be an act of self-revelation, are movingly countered by Auden's desperate desire to be involved in the libretto. It never happened; but it acquires an imaginative plausibility and shows two great artists, towards the end of their lives, united in their belief in the power of the creative impulse. As Auden himself says, "what matters is the work".

A play that could easily seem tricksy is also given a superbly fluid production by Nicholas Hytner and is beautifully acted. Richard Griffiths bears no physical resemblance to Auden but he becomes a vivid metaphor for the poet. At the same time, Griffiths reminds us of the tetchy actor who is simply playing a role. Alex Jennings offers an equally potent echo of the angst-ridden Britten, spitting out the name of "Tippett" with calculated asperity. Adrian Scarborough as Carpenter and Frances de la Tour as the stage manager are no less magnetic.
Paul Taylor for the Indy was more positive, seeing the play as a personal "coming-out" by Bennett:
Nicholas Hytner directs with an unerring instinct for the volatile nature of the material in a cracking production that flirtatiously keeps the audience up to speed with the outrageous amount of information and allusion. The play-within-the-play is replete with potty, poetry-spouting personifications of, say, Auden’s fabled Wrinkles who kvetch about the strain of working on a face that, as Hockney once remarked, made you wonder how on earth his scrotum looked. The pastiche is always superbly pointed. I loved the moment when Britten, barking avuncular orders at one of his beloved boy sopranos, pounds strenuous pianistic dissonance into one of his nursery rhyme settings. The outer play is full of lovely observant comedy about the protocols of the rehearsal room, especially from Frances de la Tour all dryly witty, battle-hardened, managing motherliness with the egos who have landed in Rehearsal Room One. Hytner revealed at a press conference that Bennett at one stage wanted to call the play Caliban’s Day and you can see why. For just as The Sea and the Mirror, Auden’s poetic meditation on The Tempest gives the last word to the low-class monster, so Bennett allows the rent-boy to speak up at the conclusion for the culturally excluded bit-players who service the educated but don’t get a look-in at life’s ongoing arts festival. “I don’t even know what I don’t know,” he complains. “I want to get in. I want to join. I want to know”.
For a comedic romp which has an interlude inside a play inside a play, on a set which is both spare and cluttered, which is referential to drama, music, poetry, criticism and Oxford life (high and low), and has both Richard Griffiths and Francis de la Tour (previously together on stage here with The History Boys), it was all a fine way to spend an afternoon.

And so home, in the rain of mid-May, another bottle of something red, and a rather nice pie made by the Pert Young Piece. Sphere: Related Content

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