Theater Review: Televising The Habit of Art

But in my arms until the break of day/ Let the living creature lie,/ Mortal, guilty, but to me/ The entirely beautiful. – W. H. Auden, Lullaby

Richard Griffiths as Fitz (W. H. Auden), Adrian Scarborough as Donald (Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings as Henry (Benjamin Britten). Photo: Johan Persson

The Habit of Art: Richard Griffiths as Fitz (W. H. Auden), Adrian Scarborough as Donald (Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings as Henry (Benjamin Britten). Photo: Johan Persson

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. The National Theatre production presented by NTLive at the Coolidge Corner Cinema, Boston, MA, on April 22 (Additional simulcast on May 8 at 2 p.m.).

A bonus simulcast has been added to the NTLive lineup: on June 28th Coolidge Corner Cinema will simulcast Dion Boucicault’s comedy London Assurance starring Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw.

Reviewed by Bill Marx

Alan Bennett’s play The Habit of Art is the last of a series of four live simulcasts of productions staged at the National Theatre in London. Presented by cinemas around the world, the set-up of NTLive is similar in many ways to New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s simulcasts. Images of the audience taking their seats are followed by factoids and film footage about the production (an early form of what is sure to come—the digital playbill), followed by a performance that is presented via two-camera, TV sit-com techniques.

The day of the static camera, stuck in the middle of the auditorium, are over; NTLive features a variety of shots and angles, including close-ups. In the case of the Coolidge Corner Cinema, the plays are screened in hi-definition—no doubt 3-D approaches.

The result offers plenty of play-going pleasures, if nothing else raising intriguing questions about the relationship between live theater and live theater projected on a screen. (Those who think that devices such as the IPad may be a platform for stage work in the future should take note. Smaller theaters will no doubt soon be doing simulcasts as well.) Though the technology must irritate the live audience in London—it was hard to miss the cameramen bopping around the stage.

Ironically, the glimpses of the cameramen-at-work fit the backstage spirit of Bennett’s messy, Pirandello-lite-weight, but entertaining hit comedy, a love letter to the theater channeled through the production of a gimcrackery play about the real life relationship between major English poet W. H. Auden and famed opera composer Benjamin (Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw) Britten.

The pair worked together fruitfully in the 1930s, but fell out after collaborating on the opera Paul Bunyan, which belly flopped in New York. Britten cut off ties with Auden for the rest of their lives. Bennett imagines an awkward reunion between the aging giants in the 1970s, triggered by Britten’s crippling doubts about the autobiographical reverberations of his opera-in-progress Death in Venice, fears he brings to Auden, who is living in Oxford.

The director is away, but Kay, the Stage Manager (Frances De La Tour), is running a rehearsal under the self-defensively earnest eye of the playwright (Elliot Levey), who sees the production as a conduit for his ideas about the illuminating power of biography rather than as a vehicle for the performers to strut their stuff.

Some of the frustrated actors instigate an amusing counter insurgency led by Fitz (Richard Griffiths), who is frustrated with the role of Auden. Fitz fears that he doesn’t look like the poet, has trouble memorizing the dialogue, and argues that scenes focusing on the poet’s infamous slovenliness and taste for “rent boys” overwhelms the “nobility” of his verse. At one point Fitz, reaching for faux-verisimilitude, dons a wonderfully ridiculous (and crinkly) Auden mask.

Donald (Adrian Scarborough) plays Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote biographies of both artists. Donald insists, during a marvelously farcical discussion, that Carpenter amounts to no more than a dramatic device, a flat-footed mouthpiece for the playwright. The actor rebels, trying to jazz up the character at one point by coming on in drag.

The old drag routine gives Bennett’s game away. Despite suggestions that The Habit of Art tackles substantial concerns, including the conflict of gay artists with society, the collision between the personal and the creative, and the challenges age poses to art, the production is essentially a warmhearted backstage comedy that draws on the form’s standard collection of hissy fits, showbiz anecdotes, ballooning egos, generational hand-to-hand combat, and inspiring camaraderie. It is a consistently amusing example of the genre.

Director Nicholas Hytner jumps the National Theatre cast nimbly through Bennett’s hoops of multi-leveled stage reality; the performers relish the internecine yarn spinning and scenery chewing. Richard Griffiths roars and complains with plumply arch timing, Alex Jennings deftly underplays Henry, another manifestation of the “wise old performer,” and Adrian Scarborough renders a skillful portrait of a neurotic actor in thrall to his kitschy artistic conscience.

Richard Griffiths

Richard Griffiths as Fitz (W.H. Auden). Photo: Johan Persson

The first half of the production sticks to the behind-the-footlights antics and thus proffers plenty of fun, especially with Jennings and De La Tour giving arch voice to the pleas scripted for Auden’s furniture. The campy antics offset the somewhat one-note roles that Bennett writes for the dense dramatist, steel mother of a Stage Manager, and the unsure male ingenue Tim, affectingly played by Stephen Wight.

In the second act, when Britten finally enters the play-within-the play, the script solidifies into a somewhat flyblown examination of “issues” and “sexual exploitation,” with the Stage Manager offering potted explanations for the rowdy behavior of “theater folk” while Auden preaches (often) about how art shouldn’t be pretentious. Bennett touches lightly and perceptively on the duel between music and words, Britten’s taste for “boys,” and the enticing intersections of art and gossip. But he doesn’t add much to the accepted notion of artists as flawed human beings expressed in a graceful line from Auden’s “Lullaby”—“Mortal, guilty, but to me/ The entirely beautiful.”

The thematic overcrowding hits home when three different endings shuffle by, the majestic note sounded by Griffiths gusty rendition of Auden’s verse followed by an overwrought homage to the ordinary people who help out the great capped by a strained note of pathos touching on the fact that the theater (and by extension society) cannot be everything to everyone. Still, Bennett serves up a very enjoyable entertainment whose beguiling theatrical charms suggests why the stage should remain a habit.


Finally, a word (far from the last) about the paradoxical relationship between watching screened live theater and attending a performance. As I watched The Habit of Art I was struck with how often the camera was planted in the “right” place, at least in terms of straightforward film/television presentation. The shots were arranged so that we were always looking at who was speaking, the camera quickly pulling back for group conversations.

The problem is that, despite the deft visual coverage, I resent losing my freedom to look at who I want to when watching live theater. Often I am as interested in the reaction of a performer listening to another than I am to whoever is speaking. I am fascinated by how a director uses the space on stage to define power and position, to generate energy and shape ideas. Simulcasts do not give the mind and imagination of the spectator room to wander about the stage.

In that sense, simulcast theater is directed twice over—the stage production is subjected to the dictatorship of the film director, who decides where and when to point the camera, controlling what we see. Someday the technology will be developed that will allow the spectator to take charge of the camera, so that we can chose who to look at and when.


  1. Alyssa Machado on April 27, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Your review made me think of the 2008 filmed stage version of the musical Rent (called Rent: Filmed Live of Broadway) that was presented as a limited time special event movie as part of Sony Picture’s Hot Ticket series in movie theaters.

    That film was an interesting amalgam of live performance and film. Basically, the musical was filmed twice, once from an audience perspective during the final live performance of the show before it closed on Broadway and once in an actor-only run through with cameramen moving about on the stage to capture additional angles. The two were edited together (almost flawlessly) to create the final product.

    This eliminated the distraction of having cameramen running around during the live performance, but kept the unique angles and presumably allowed multiple takes for key moments (I’m not sure if I entirely like the multiple takes since part of the “magic” of a great performance is that it is a single, great, continuous performance).

    In general, I thought it captured the spirit of the musical, but added new perspectives on the material (like intimate close ups in two person scenes). In that manner, it was a good compromise between mediums.

    On the other hand, it had its problems. Musicals are usually staged and acted to project to the back of the theater and the extreme close-ups in the filmed version made the acting (and makeup) seem overdone at times. When the film director chose to film from the side on stage, you could see entrances from the wings, which I found distracting. You also lost the effect of the staging in group numbers when the camera focused only on a few actors.

    Like you, I resented being able to look at who I want to when watching the show. In Rent, the cast is as much a part of the set of the show as the set pieces, and the background interactions and expressions pick up a lot of slack for the somewhat underdeveloped plot.

    Still, I’d love to see more similar experiments with other musicals in the future. These films events help expose a wider audience to theater and, hopefully, convince people to see shows live.

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