Review: The Habit Of Art

Do great artists exist on a higher plane than the rest of us?

The Habit Of Art
  • York Theatre Royal
  • Till Sat Sept 8
  • £10-£32.50
  • More details

We canonise the best of our dead creators, but The Habit Of Art brings us back to the reality. The most beautiful works of art are made by flawed, lustful, selfish, egotistical people.

Human beings, in other words.

More than that, artworks are willed into existence by sheer stubbornness – a drive, a work ethic to get things down on paper. The habit of art itself.

Laughs and squalor

Matthew Kelly as York’s own WH Auden
In this revival of Alan Bennett’s play, the first since its 2009 London premiere, the themes of art, sex, friendship and ageing intertwine.

And if that strikes you as a very earnest combination, be assured there are plenty of laughs along the way. This is Bennett after all.

Centred on a fictional meeting between York-born poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, it is a play-within-a-play.

Actors Fitz, Henry, Tim and Donald are rehearsing Caliban’s Day under the direction of stage manager Kay and in the presence of the playwright Neil.

The grubbiness behind much great art are made clear by Auden’s squalid Oxford digs, complete with unwashed cups and stained trousers.


Matthew Kelly is remarkable as Fitz/Auden. Somehow he morphs in an instant between the eloquent, subversive and ever-curious poet into the irritable, vulnerable actor barking for a prompt. Funny and tender by turns, you feel for the man – both men – and their jointly-owned self-doubt.

The interplay between Kelly and David Yelland as Henry/Britten works beautifully. Yelland portrays Britten as a fidgeting neurotic wrapped in the half-smile of decorum. But underneath there lies a large and fragile ego.

When Auden punctures his artistic pretension by claiming Britten’s musical inspirations are not classical and high-minded but his lust for boys, Yelland’s repressed white-knuckle rage is palpable.

Clashing egos

David Yelland as Benjamin Britten
The nuts and bolts of creation are explored in fascinating detail in the play.

As a writer of long-standing, Bennett must have sat in on hundreds of rehearsals such as this. Watching these clashing artistic egos coralled into something approaching a play makes you realise how astonishing it is that any collaborative art gets made.

Interestingly Bennett makes his playwright Neil, played with enjoyable exasperation by Robert Mountford, the biggest diva. All actors are children, says stage manager Kay, and the most child-like of all is Donald, who frets about his portrayal of biographer Humphrey Carpenter with entertaining melodrama.

Matthew Kelly, and Veronica Roberts as Kay
Alexandra Guelff, Veronica Roberts, David Yelland, Matthew Kelly, Benjamin Chandler, John Wark
These artistic temperaments bashing up against each other – along with Bennett’s brilliant one-liners – are cause for many of the biggest laughs. Although a moment involving pantomime-like drag and a tuba hits a rare bum note.

The two women in the cast demonstrate remarkable versatility. Veronica Roberts as practical, empathetic Kay, and her assitant played by Alexandra Guelff, double up as everyone from grumpy college porters to choirboys to beds – yes, beds – with effortless skill.

Philip Franks brings an actor’s eye to the direction, deftly creating an unfinished play within a finished one. And credit should go to whoever is in charge of the props: there are dozens of them, and resetting them after each performance would be no easy task.

In a way, those props brings us to back to where we started. Every cocktail glass, crumpled piece of paper and LP is a reminder of Bennett’s central point. Creating art is a messy old business.