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Review: The Habit of Art, Grand Opera House

Back in the 60s, Benjamin Britten was simply the composer who wrote the score of school concerts — and a few other things — and WH Auden was the poet who had gone to America during the war and produced lyrics of love and loss.

The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett, which transfixed the Grand Opera House audience last night, imagines an encounter at Oxford between these two great twentieth century English figures. But Bennett, who is as playful here as he's been in his career, does this via a play within a play called Caliban's Day.

For Bennett is a bit of a history boy. And his framing device, which allows us to see the actors move in and out of character and experience the frustrations of the fairly unsympathetic author, enables us to think through some of the biggies thrown our way about art and life, ageing, homosexuality (as Auden says waspishly to the more fastidious Britten, “You never needed an excuse to look at boys”) and whether reputations become shackles.

While the tenses were mixed, the performances were superb. Desmond Barrit, as the actor Fitz who plays Auden and has a patchy memory but a magnificent old ham's way with vowels, was mesmerising.

Britten's role was to provide some early enchanting songs, with a boy singer, on the upper level of a complex set by Bob Crowley, then bring his problems about adapting Death in Venice to his old sparring partner, Auden.

You could read the two levels of the set as art on top — and music ultimately wins out in the battle between the music because as Britten triumphantly said it “melts words” — and messy old life, maybe even the subconscious as seen in Auden's hovel underneath.

Certainly, Malcolm Sinclair acted the torment of a man who had never come to terms with his private life, and hadn't needed to thanks to the “iron clad” matrons of Aldebrugh, outstandingly.

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This man acts with his eyebrows, with the slightest glance and he was also good as the actor Henry acting Britten.

This is maybe a late work, not as finely worked out as The History Boys, but it is ambitious and wickedly hilarious, and puts the case for the habit of art.

Jane Hardy

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