I saw a play yesterday. Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, at the Lowry in Salford. It’s a breathtakingly ambitious, fitfully brilliant, extraordinarily wide-ranging play, in the original National Theatre production, flawlessly directed by Nicholas Hytner and featuring a strong cast headed by Desmond Barritt, Malcolm Sinclair, Matthew Cottle and Selina Cadell. If the tour is coming anywhere near you, go and see it – it’s not an easy ride, and it takes a while to take off, but it’s rewarding and ultimately surprisingly moving, and it’s well worth the mental effort. I want to get that out of the way first, because this is not strictly a review.
Watching the audience was almost as good as watching the play. There’s increasingly a gulf, or rather a great big yawning chasm, between the way Alan Bennett is perceived by the public and the material he actually writes. He passed the point of becoming a ‘national treasure’ a couple of decades ago at least – somewhere between the first series of Talking Heads and The Madness of George III, I think, if not earlier. He looks like an academic, and he’s quietly spoken, and it’s easy, I think, for people to attach to him an image of cosy respectability that’s very much at odds with his work, which is razor-sharp, unflinchingly frank, and often rather bleak. And oh my God, this gulf was visible at the Lowry yesterday afternoon.
I saw the matinee (the bus and train service around here shuts down sufficiently early that getting home from an evening performance at the Lowry on public transport is impossible without using a taxi for at least part of the way). Tickets aren’t cheap – top price was £26.00, which is a little over four times the cost of a cinema ticket – so the audience was (how can I say this nicely?) mostly firmly middle-aged (or older) and middle-class. And this play, more than most I’ve seen, polarised the audience. A surprising number of people did not return after the interval.
The play – the whole play – takes the form of a rehearsal of a play, in a rehearsal studio at the National Theatre. There’s no curtain. The set is a meticulous recreation of one of the RNT’s larger rehearsal studios, with the proscenium where the fourth wall would be. An actor is onstage a good ten minutes before curtain time, making tea, sorting papers and generally doing all of the things an ASM would be doing in the ten minutes before actors were due to arrive for a rehearsal. There are no scenes, the play seems to take place almost in real time, the interval comes when the actors take a coffee break. The play within the play – “Caliban’s Day” – is about a fictitious meeting between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden in Oxford, circa 1973. As the “actors” stumble through their run-through, they drop in and out of “character”, questioning their lines, their motivation, the play’s historical accuracy, whether the play-within-the-play’s sexual frankness (one character is a rent boy, there are a couple of full and frank discussions of oral sex, and it’s more than implied that there is a sexual dimension in Britten’s feelings towards choirboys) is absolutely necessary, whether artists should be portrayed as heroic or flawed, how hard it is to play a character who is essentially a literary device… you get the picture. It’s sprawling, funny, rude, thought-provoking, moving, and it requires a fair amount of concentration, since there are no divisions between scenes, no set changes, no blackouts, no lighting cues at all (the entire play takes place under rehearsal lighting, and the actress playing the stage manager turns the light off when she leaves at the end of the play).
There were people at the end who clearly hadn’t enjoyed it at all. There were a significant number of empty seats at the end of the interval – the play is an anointed hit with a raft of four- and five-star reviews, written by one of the very few British playwrights whose name on a poster translates into big box-office business, so there was pretty much a full house, even in the Lyric (the Lowry’s larger house, it seats about 1750). The three people to my right left at the interval. A group sitting behind me left at the interval. Looking around, before the house lights went down for the second half, my guess is that well over 100 people did not come back for Act Two. During the interval and on the walk out of the theatre, there was a lot of audible discussion of the play’s perceived shortcomings – no pace (the actors, actually, kept the pace up very well, but the play, undeniably, sprawls), no plot, bad language (both acts are liberally sprinkled with the words ‘cock’ and ‘fuck’), did he really need to take his trousers down, it wasn’t what they expected, etc etc. On the other hand, two nice older ladies, also seated behind me, made my afternoon by spending the whole of the interval conducting an earnest discussion about the practical difficulties Auden would have encountered in engaging the services of a rent boy in Oxford in 1972. They were applauding enthusiastically at the end.
I’m not, actually, all that surprised that people walked out. I said the play was fitfully brilliant; the second act is much better than the first, and the play’s structure is challenging. What I’m curious about, in fact, is something a little more fundamental: why did these people who didn’t enjoy it buy tickets to see it in the first place? It’s a year since the play opened in London. The reviews are out there and easily available, and provide an accurate picture of the play’s content and form. Britten and Auden’s sexuality should not be a surprise to anybody, and frank sexual language has been a feature of Bennett’s work for at least 25 years. “The History Boys”, Bennett’s previous play, was as big a hit as any playwright in Britain has had in the past two decades, and it’s just as full of frank discussion of sexual and bodily functions as “The Habit of Art”. The Lowry is not a producing theatre, and does not have a subscription season – if you see a play there, it’s an active choice rather than part of a package. But despite the reviews, the pre-opening publicity, the articles about the play, Bennett’s previous body of work and all the rest of it, a very significant proportion of this very large audience were disconcerted to the point where they either left or complained loudly after the show by the fact that what they saw did not match the rather buttoned-down way Bennett presents himself in photographs.
Why does this matter? It reinforces a belief I’ve had for a while – that Bennett, now, is more genuinely subversive than a room full of Mark Ravenhills. Put simply, Bennett draws a crowd that would not necessarily queue up to watch experimental or fringe theatre. They buy tickets because of his name on the poster (the actors here were good, but they were not the all-star quartet that opened the play in London; their names would not translate into ticket sales); he has as much of a mass audience as anyone writing for the theatre these days, but each successive play challenges his audience, and although he doesn’t aim for easy shocks (like, say, putting the word ‘fucking’ into the title of a play to make it look as though you’re daring when in fact you’ve simply written a very thin play in which you hope the blizzard of expletives will disguise the fact that you only had half an idea, which you haven’t managed to develop) he’s also unafraid to be disliked. “The Habit of Art” is many things, but it’s most assuredly not the work of a man who needs his audience to love him. But the odd thing is, the people who walked out will probably buy tickets to his next one.