The Habit of Art

Tue 11th – Sat 15th October 2016


Clare Cavenagh

at 14:09 on 12th Oct 2016



I could not have wished for a better re-introduction to the ADC than The Habit of Art. This play-within-a-play, wonderfully directed by Isaac Jordan, presents a day of rehearsals for a play depicting a meeting between W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, their first in years. With a fantastic cast, an unusually detailed set, this productions is every bit as clever as Alan Bennett's play.

Upon arrival in the theatre, the Audience are immediately confronted with a scene of (perhaps very familiar) chaos. The stage has been transformed into Auden's rooms in Oxford, a compost heap of literary and alcoholic debris to put even the most untidy undergraduate to shame. Closer to the audience, a folding table and chairs indicate that this room is merely a set, and they are looking into a rehearsal room, prepared for the running of a play.

Into this room come the actors, the stage managers, and the playwright. Tim Vaughan and John Tothill respectively take the roles of Britten and Auden, doubling up as the actors who play them. also in the cast are Ben Martineau playing the future biographer of the two men, and Jamie P. Robson, playing an actor playing Auden's 'visitor'. All of these actors manage very delicately to create both a sense of separation, but also a kind of overlap between their two layers of character. Joining them are the Kay, the luvvie stage manager played by Isobel Laidler, ASM played by Louisa Keight, and the Author of the inner play (Elise Hagan).

Those expecting lots of laughs from this Alan Bennett piece will not be disappointed. The script is hugely funny, and the actors and director made the most of this humour. Many gems came from the recognisable setting of an Oxford academic's room, and these tended to draw especially big laughs. Much of the humour comes from the play's frank and mischievous discussions of sex however, and this proved a little much for the (apparently prudish) audience member sitting beside me, who did not return for the second half.

This was a great shame, as the second half grew in complexity towards a spectacular ending. The delicate subject matter or much of the dialogue (Britten's infamous interest in young boys) was teased out in this half, interrogated and examined rather than flippantly glossed over or laughed at. Vaughan did a particularly wonderful job of this section, switching between Britten, uncomfortable about his own desires, and the actor playing him, uncomfortable about portraying them.

The second half was also very rich in a kind of self deprecation which both the play, and this particular production capitalised on. It allowed some of the trickier elements of both to be seamlessly carried off. This is a story which risks being uncomfortable, strangely-shaped, pretentious, but it is never guilty of any of those things because of its trick of pointing them out. The play, the production and the actors (both levels) notice and point out the moments where they become scary or strange or ridiculous, and rather than being lost the audience is pulled in more tightly. The close of the play also brought a wonderful moment between stage manager Kay (Isobel Laidler) and the Author (Elise Hagan). Their ending cut through the previous abrasiveness of Hagan's performance and left me convinced, and moved.

The Habit of Art is just the ticket if you're looking for something to ease you through the transition between the horrific debauchery of Freshers' Week and the pure, intellectual pursuits of term. But more than this, it's a play which is fun, clever, complex and touching. I expect this will be a highlight of the term. Make sure you don't miss out!


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