Thursday, January 21, 2010
Art & Soul
The moment we stepped out of the National Theatre last evening, Sid asked, “So what was it about?” And it took me a full five minutes to figure out what was the Alan Benett play The Habit of Art about. It was about a day in the rehearsal of a play about a meeting between the poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the fag ends of their lives where they discuss art, fame, old age, the fear of being forgotten, their homosexuality, and how the two of them dealt with it in their lives and in their art, as imagined by their biographer Humphrey Carpenter.
So how many different kinds of artists was this play about? There was the author of the play that was being rehearsed, the play’s producer, the actors playing the different parts, the poet Auden, the composer Britten and even the biographer Carpenter. They all had ideas about theatre, acting, writing, poetry, music and the humanity of the characters they enacted. And the play was about all of that.
With so many ideas jostling for space, Bennett’s play could have easily accelerated towards total meltdown. Yet, it moved smoothly on adding layers upon layers without losing sight to the humanity of each artist – the author, producer and actors bringing their own life experiences of age, sexualities and art into the play. And it is so naturally acted that you actually feel that you are getting a peak into the comedy, ideas, anxieties, egos and intellect that come together in the making of a play.
Watching it I was reminded of another celebrated work of art on largely a similar theme – age, fame, sexuality, art, and art within art – the 2008 Charlie Kaufman’s movie Synecdoche, New York. Yet, while Synecdoche, New York left you exhausted, tired and hopeless with respect to both art and life, The Habit of Art is the opposite. It will leave your refreshed, amused, full of ideas and hopeful towards the eventual decline of life that awaits us all.
Yes, we will be old. But age will also give us the opportunity to give-in to our glorious eccentricities!
* The website of the Royal National Theatre says that tickets for the play have sold out till April. But call up at their box office number, and they are sure to have some return tickets. Our £10 tickets had us in the second row but as much of the action takes place in the central of the stage they were totally worth it.
**Here’s the only review of Synecdoche, New York that encaptured the complex feelings it left me with.