An imagined meeting between English composer Benjamin Britten and poet WH Auden form the basis of the Old Mill Theatre's latest play. Written by Alan Bennett, one of the UK's most prolific living playwrights, The Habit of Art sees the two men meet for the first time in 25 years with Britten seeking advice from Auden – his former collaborator and friend – about his new opera Death in Venice.
During the 1973 meeting, they are observed and interrupted by, among others, their future biographer and a young man from the local bus station. The play-within-a-play looks at the unsettling desires of two difficult men and the ethics of biography, reflecting on growing old, creativity and inspiration and persisting when all passion is spent – the habit of art.
Director Anthony Howes described The Habit of Art as one of the finest comedy-dramas of the past decade. "It takes two great men of the arts and, through much laughter and a few tears, shows them to be fallible human beings with a passion for the arts," he said.
The play articulates that passion for the ordinary theatre-goer, enabling them to feel and understand. The main challenge is probably the same for all directors of any production – to work towards assisting the cast to arrive at a common vision of the author's creation."
Paul Bray, left, and Sally Barendse play assistant stage manager George and stage manager Kay in The Habit of Art, which features a play-within-a-play.
Perth-born Anthony Howes has directed several Alan Bennett plays in Australia, including a Sydney tour of Forty Years On, The Madness of George III and the critically-acclaimed The History Boys at the Playhouse Theatre, featuring Edgar Metcalfe and Jenny McNae. He holds the Pen International Salute for direction, Advance Australia Award for the Arts, Centenary Medal for Theatre and Freedom of the City of London (for youth and the arts in Britain and Australia).
For many years, Anthony directed for the ABC in radio and television and also founded the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, where he was artistic director for 25 years. His productions have been seen in Australia, the UK (at the Royal Opera House, Sadler's Wells Theatre and in the provinces), Canada, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam and Thailand.
The Habit of Art appealed because Alan Bennett is one of the finest writers of human comedy of the age," Anthony said. "To direct the West Australian premiere of the work is exciting."
The Habit of Art features Dene Irvin, left, as poet WH Auden, Barry Park as biographer Humphrey Carpenter and Justin Freind as English composer Benjamin Britten.
Barry Park plays two roles in the show: the insecure actor Donald, who is playing the real-life English biographer, writer and radio broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter.
Donald is high-maintenance and concerned the character he's playing is just a plot device," he said. "In his role as Carpenter, who is interviewing WH Auden, he steps out of the action to become a choric commentator, often speaking directly to the audience.
Towards the end of the play, Carpenter mildly reprimands Auden and Britten for being so concerned about their reputations when their audiences are anxious to simply draw a line under them both. It will be challenging to switch between the two characters, especially given Carpenter is responsible for maintaining the narrative thread in his direct commentary to the audience.
Donald's hilarious impersonation of English comic singer Douglas Byng [a pantomime dame] at the start of act two will also be great fun to do. The Habit of Art appealed because I have loved Bennett's plays ever since I performed in Forty Years On as a very young man. I loved this play when I saw it performed by London's National Theatre and have read it several times because it is a play I wanted to direct.
Brandon Orgill, left, Surjo Mazhar Sahid and Matthew Han all play the boy soprano Charlie, who auditions for Benjamin Britten (Justin Freind) in The Habit of Art.
"It provides a fascinating insight into not only the accomplishments of Auden and Britten but also their fears and failings. At the same time, it entertainingly satirises typical rehearsal room behaviour we actors know so well. I admire the eloquence and wry humour in Bennett's plays, as well as the empathy and compassion he shows for his characters."
The Habit of Art plays at 8pm April 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23, 29 and 30 with a 2pm matinee April 17. Tickets are $25, $20 concession – book at oldmilltheatre.com.au/tickets or on 9367 8719. Please note: the play features adult language and themes.
The heritage-listed Old Mill Theatre is on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road, South Perth (opposite the Windsor Hotel and Australia Post).