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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Bennett’

Alan Bennett’s new play, “The Habit of Art” opened yesterday.

Seeing it, I was reminded of something that David Hare wrote about the reception of “Pravda”, the Fleet Street satire that he co-wrote with Howard Brenton. Before a single review had been written, before a single line had been spoken, the two authors, sitting in the audience, looked at each other in delighted disbelief because it was already apparent before the lights went down on the first night that the audience had decided to love the play. Every line was met with delight, every laugh was twice as loud, and twice as long as they had dreamed, and the ovations went on and on.

And so it was with “The Habit of Art” – a consideration of artistic identity told through an imagined encounter between Auden and Britten when both men were in their sixties.

What struck me was that Bennett had (according to the programme note, quite late in the day) framed the story as a “play within a play” – enabling any questions that had arisen in the rehearsal process of the original, unadorned play to be voiced (and answered) by the playwright, stage manager and other attendant crew who watched a “run-through” in the rehearsal room. I think it worked very well, enabling Bennett to add a consideration of the process of acting and theatre as another example of identity being accorded to those who create out of habit and determination, as well as love. Alex Jennings (as Britten – and the actor performing the role) gave a beautiful pair of performances; Frances de la Tour provided a magnificently tired, cynical, but loving portrait of a woman who had spent her life not just in the theatre, but in a role that subjugated her identity and desire to others – and Richard Griffiths (stepping in at late notice for Michael Gambon) gave a performance of tremendous charm, maybe not quite as unforgettable as his “Hector” in “The History Boys” – but tremendously affecting, funny and clear. Definitely one to see.

Seen within a month of David Hare’s “The Power of Yes” it was another striking example of a great playwright who had presented a play that used commentary, notes and glossing to tell his story and present his argument. And then, of course, there is the powerhouse performance of Fiona Shaw in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” – the ultimate playwright glossing his own work with a commentary. All three plays are running at the National Theatre: all three are giving us a very clear view (though from three very different positions) of dramatists examining –  possibly even doubting – the traditional form of the play.

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Well: I feel rather stupid.

I thought I was off to the National Theatre to see “Mother Courage and Her Children” starring Fiona Shaw (a production that, in spite of its delayed Press Night and decidedly mixed reviews, I am assured by Me As A Protestant has rekindled a love for Brecht in him – so that’s pretty high praise…), and it turned out that I was going to see David Hare’s (equally schizophrenically reviewed) “The Power of Yes”.

Once I’d actually LOOKED at the tickets, and realised that I wasn’t just going to see a different play, I was also going to see this with my parents, rather than alone (Miss Shaw being someone whom divides opinion, but about whom, like Shakespeare, Steiner, Titian, Matisse and a few others, I am not prepared to hear negative opinions – so I tend to worship at that altar  alone), I started to get very excited. I am absolutely in Hare’s camp. I think his work is serious (which is not to say that it can’t be, simultaneously, incredibly funny), heart-felt, ambitious and extremely accomplished. Like everyone else, he has his ups and downs: but I think a man who has given us “Plenty”, “Racing Demon”, “The Absence of War”, “Murmuring Judges”, “Skylight”, “Stuff Happens” and – my favourite of them all – “Amy’s View”, has got to be counted amongst the gods of contemporary playwrights.

So, I was excited, and after just over two hours (for it runs without an interval), I wasn’t sure. It is a very dense play, crammed with facts, figures, historical events – and even mathematical formulae. It has the great seriousness of purpose that I so like in his work (and how could an analysis of the current financial crisis fail to?) – and it is an absolute endorsement of theatre as THE art form to encourage reflection, debate, understanding and dialogue about our immediate surroundings.

And yet, it did, at times, feel like a draft, not a play. The sub-title is “A Dramatist Attempts To Make Sense of the Financial Crisis” – and therein lies some of the problem. The play is, a verbatim record of Hare’s characteristically pains-taking research and meetings with the people directly involved in, and writing about, the crisis: real people, real conversations, real exchanges. The cast of characters (and to some extent, the cast itself) is huge – and this has necessitated (in Hare’s opinion, at least) the need to precede every appearance made by any character with a Choric figure announcing his or her name, role and involvement in the crisis. This slows the pace considerably, and I wonder how necessary it was, either at all (after all, the endless Dramatis Personae in Shakespearean history plays don’t get the equivalent of a personal introduction every time they open their mouths…), or through some other medium (the set is magnificent and consists almost entirely of projections: there would have been one alternative, at least…). We keep returning to the figure of Hare himself being asked by a kindly, female trader who has been roped into briefing him if he is “alright” and if he is “keeping up” – and it’s hard not to see that as a quick reminder to the audience that this is what they are being expected to do. I felt at some points in the evening that what this should really be is an extended essay in one of the few periodicals that still publishes these things: “The New Yorker” or (oddly) “Vanity Fair” where Hitchens has been so brilliantly contrary – but that is to dispute my credit to Hare for exploiting theatre as a medium so brilliantly, so it becomes self-defeating.

In a very different play, by a very different dramatist, Alan Bennett gets round the issue of having himself on stage (and tackles this issue of “trying to understand how I feel about something”) through the device of two “Alan Bennett’s” in “The Lady in the Van” – and it works very well indeed (although the comic tenor of that play is a little more forgiving to this sort of conceit than Hare’s aggressively “real” piece would be…

I think what stirred me into thinking “This is a draft” is that there is a magnificent, and all too brief scene when Hare is matched with a female journalist who reported on the crisis and who (it transpires) used to count amongst her friends a number of the bankers involved, or those very like them. Maybe it’s Hare’s undoubted flair for writing female characters, maybe it’s because “writer to writer” something comes alive in the language, but this is the scene that sets fire to the whole night and made me wish for more of the same. In response to Hare’s bewildered (and utterly credible) cry of “Why has not one banker apologised for this? How can they be so arrogant?”, she asks him “And when critics attack your work, do you think they’re right? Do you revise your opinion, do you change what you wrote, or what you will write?” and the play moves into a new dimension.

My parents, I should say, were unreserved in their admiration for the piece: intention and execution, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone, but perhaps in the way that one might recommend “All’s Well That Ends Well” (which I directed my own broken-backed production of when at University…) or “Measure for Measure” to someone: fascinating, but apt to leave one thinking about what the structure is and might be, as much as simply enjoying what is there in front of one.

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I remember an occasion from my University-besmirched past, talking to Me As A Protestant about Alan Bennett’s recently televised “102 Boulevard Haussmann”, his television play about Proust, he said: “Oh God, what a combination: Alan Bennett and Proust.”

Now I am a fan of both those people, subscribing to the (not exactly revolutionary) idea that “A La Recherche de Temps Perdu” is the greatest novel in existence; and that Alan Bennett (whose star appears to be on the ever-ascendant – certainly more so than it was during my University days, which prefigured the excellent “The Madness of King George III” and the incomparable “The History Boys”) was a magnificently talented dramatist.

So, I found myself in an odd situation when presented with a copy of Bill Bryson’s “Shakespeare” – a best-selling entry in the “Brief Lives” series.

While I absolutely recognise, and enjoy Bryson’s (ironically, illogically, factually incorrect) “British” sense of the ludicrous, his relish for the minor detail, his enthusiasm for idiosyncrasy, I was very far from convinced that he was the man to tackle the man who is (for my money) not only the greatest writer in the history of the world, without exception – but is the greatest mind in the history of the world, without exception.

And I was wrong. The book is brilliant: I read in straight through in four hours, finding it smart, concise, unsentimental and illuminating: an absolute triumph for a book of its brevity (it’s under 200 pages long), and a magnificent complement to the (equally fabulous) more exhaustive ambitions of such relatively recent publications as “1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare”.

It’s fun, but not trivial; informative, but not stuffy; Bryson, but not not-Shakespeare. Quite a feat.

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Why is it that I am convinced that every cab driver, in any foreign country, is intent not on delivering me to my hotel; but is, instead, determined to drive me to a patch of wasteland, fillet me and turn me into the basis of an elaborate shrubbery?

There’s a passage in Alan Bennett’s brilliant “The History Boys” (originally in his diaries, I think: I’ve certainly come across it previously) where the schoolmaster, Hector is describing the joy of realising that something that you have always thought to be your own, lonely perspective is shared by a great artist: you read on in amazement and awe, feeling and reveling in the connection.

I think Hector is referring to Thomas Hardy, the second-rate novelist and first-rate poet. I, of course, am referring to the no-less illustrious Angelina Jolie, Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah.

“The Bone Collector” was one of those films which, for me, epitomised “horror”. Anything with Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan or (God forbid!) the pair of them, accounts for the others. The taxi driver who takes advantage of a visitor’s ignorance of the city to deliver them to a desolate place where they will be buried alive made such a powerful – and unwelcome – impression on me, that cabs (once the source of so much pleasure to me, to the detriment of my bank account…) have become foul-smelling pods of doom, with all the pleasurable associations of Charon’s ferry.

If it were as simple as “Hop on a bus, then, tit-face!”, I would, but late into an unknown airport in a foreign country makes that less feasible than it is at home (London).

The most recent, Jakarta-based, experience was exacerbated to no small degree by the fact that the cab was CLEARLY being driven by someone other than the man whose identity badge was displayed, in all its official glory to the dashboard. 

The man who looked out of the laminated documentation on the dashboard appeared to have stopped off en route to a bleeding edge fashion shoot: hair artfully distressed and waxed. Face: handsome and youthful, de rigeur sneer creasing his expression. He wore a sky blue shirt that probably cost the same as the cab I was in.

The driver was quite clearly not this man. Perhaps he had been unwilling to go to the expense of having a photograph taken, and had, instead, simply raided the pages of Indonesia’s “Dazed and Confused”, but I think he could have looked a little harder for someone who was a closer match to his own appearance. Ella Fitzgerald, for example.

Of course, all ended well and after the briefest of those unsettling bomb-checks, when staff with angled mirrors on sticks check under a car that you’ve been in for a good hour, he drove me through the gates of the hotel where I enjoyed a night of freezing-cold air-conditioning, because I was too addled to work out how to turn it off.

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Monday, 24th September 2007

Yes, I am joking, but it suddenly struck me that it’s not for a while (excluding my holiday nearly 7 weeks ago) that I have read a novel. I’m reading a lot of history, psychology and books on theatre (mainly in preparation for the book I’m writing on Account Planning next year), but it’s been a while since I read a review and thought “I HAVE to have that.” and I’ve noticed the same in my friends, even most markedly in those who have English degrees. They’re all busying themselves over “The God Delusion” and “Herd”etc. but very few are seeking to exercise their brains in works of fiction.

That said, I HAVE just finished Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader” ( a novel about the joys and benefits of reading, so deliriously enjoyable that I finished it in a day), but have been spending rather more time on “Nobody’s Perfect”, a terrific anthology of writing on film and fiction from The New Yorker. A little more time reading the source material (as we rather portentously called it at University) and a little less reading the criticism is in order I think. Come to think of it, that’s probably as good a statement as any of the exact opposite of current university doctrine…

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