Oxford Theatre Guild’s production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is spot on. It’s a really enjoyable evening, which carries you along lightly despite the heavy topics being addressed.
The plot is a tough one for an amateur group to take on: it is a play within a play. Most actors play two characters; the first is an actor or backstage worker and the other a character in the play within a play, which focuses on Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden in their later years in Oxford.
Questions tackled in the play include the distinction between the person we know through an artist’s work and their real-life identity; the clash between an artist’s intent and it’s subsequent interpretation by others; and questions of respectability, sexuality and again, their relationship to art.
It is an incredibly clever play and a testament to Bennett’s writing that such complex subjects and meta-narratives are so easily accessible to the audience. It is also, however, an amazing achievement by the Oxford Theatre Guild to successfully execute Bennett’s work and retain that accessibility.
Alongside all this serious business about art, the play also contains a lot of humour. Some of it is very silly in fact – again a difficult balance for the director and actors to achieve, but one that they do perfectly.
In practical terms, staging this production in Wesley Memorial Church works very well as it helps you to feel more genuinely immersed in a play rehearsal than you might in a more traditional theatre. And the lighting is used to great effect to demark which we are watching at any one time.
Ideally I would draw out a particular member of the cast to comment on, but honestly they are all so engaging that it feels wrong to miss anyone out. Paul Clifford, though, has the hardest job, playing Fritz and Auden. There are a lot of parallels between the two characters and Clifford is laudably subtle (though not unclear) in his shifts between them. Also worth a mention is Richard Readshaw’s adept comic timing.
Leaving Wesley Church,I tried to think of any shortcomings in the production, for the sake of a fair review, and honestly I could not think of a single one. It really is a very relaxed and rather brilliant affair.