Plays within plays: Philip Franks on directing The Habit of Art

Posted on 25 October 2018

After garnering a series of glowing reviews for performances around the UK, Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art comes to Coventry this November in an acclaimed new production from The Original Theatre Company

Filled with all of Bennett’s signature warmth and wry humour, The Habit of Art takes the form of a play within a play, centred on the characters of poet WH Auden (Matthew Kelly) and composer Benjamin Britten .

The Habit of Art

At the start of the play, the director has been called away, so actors Fitz, Henry and Donald are rehearsing in the presence of stage manager Kay and playwright Neil. Titled Caliban’s Day, their play unfolds the story of an imagined meeting between Auden and Britten towards the end of their careers, hinting at a possible reconciliation years after a major falling out.

Ahead of the show’s arrival in Coventry 6-10 November, director Philip Franks told us more about what to expect…

How is The Habit of Art structured?

It is a play within a play in which actors are doing a run-through of a play about Auden and Britten. So you have the life of the actors and the company and also the life of these two extraordinary men and their biographer.

Both plays, as it were, comment on the other. It allows you to take a serious subject and make it extremely funny because Alan Bennett is witty to the marrow of his bones. He can’t not be funny. But he’s also a very humane, compassionate and serious writer and you get all of those in this play, and it’s a very moving play I think.

The Habit of Art

Has the play changed for this new tour?

I wasn’t quite sure about The Habit of Art when I read it because it’s very specific to the National Theatre, where it was first staged. I said upfront if Alan will accept a cut then I’ll do it but if not I think it belongs to where it was first done.

But he did accept the cut and we will set it in a rehearsal room in whatever theatre we happen to be. It also means we have slimmed the cast down and taken out specific references to the National Theatre and hopefully it has made it a bit more universal.

Does it matter if audiences don’t know much about Auden and Britten?

No, all you need to know is given you in the play. Bennett is very good at imparting his information, you don’t need to have a degree in 20th century music or 20th century poetry to see it.

It’s a play about old friends who’ve fallen out and how their work affects their lives and how their friendship has broken. It’s whether it can be rekindled, what work means to them and what their flaws or peculiarities of their private lives mean in relation to their work. And we can all understand that, that’s about all of us.

The Habit of Art

How did the casting come about?

I worked with casting director Joyce Nettles. I was in a play with David Yelland at the time this was mooted and thought, ‘gosh, I can’t think of anyone better to play Britten than you’.

Then Joyce said she had a brilliant idea for W H Auden. She suggested Matthew who has previous with Alan Bennett and was a great friend of Richard Griffiths as well. The marvellous thing about Matthew is that he has the most enormous warmth and accessibility.

If you were frightened that you were going to see a dry play about a difficult poet, you know that you’re not because you’re seeing Matthew who is the most available, inviting and accessible of actors. In a way Bennett has written, as so many writers like Beckett or Stoppard, a great double act in the play and they have to be completely complementary.

It’s like Falstaff and Hal or Morecambe and Wise. You have one who is being splashy and emotional, and one who is being more contained and intellectual. That’s the balance you have to get when you’re thinking about casting and that’s very much the balance I think I’ve got.

The Habit of Art

Then in the middle of it you have this little rubber ball who is bounced from one to the other – that’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter, another real person. He is treated appallingly badly by both Auden and Britten and in the play the actor who plays him is also treated badly by pretty much everybody.

Have you done Alan Bennett plays before?

I’ve played Hector in The History Boys a few years back. Matthew (Kelly) is also a previous Hector – better casting than me I think. But I enjoyed doing it. I directed Kafka’s Dick for Nottingham Playhouse some while ago and I saw David Yelland, who is playing Britten, in a Bennett play, being brilliant as Anthony Blunt.

The Habit of Art comes to the Belgrade Theatre 6-10 November. Tickets are available to book now.