Sordid tale told with good humour

Meeting of minds: Malcolm Sinclair as Benjamin Britten and Desmond Barrit as W.H. Auden. Picture: Catherin Ashmore

The Habit of Art

Birmingham Rep


BENJAMIN Britten's last opera, Death in Venice, first performed in 1973, was based on Thomas Mann's novella of the same name.

The subject though troubled Britten. It is about a famous author who becomes enchanted to the point of obsession by an adolescent boy. A subject a little too close to home for the homosexual Britten who had his own penchant for young boys.

Auditioning young boys for the role of of Tadzio, the boy in the book, in Oxford, Britten decides to visit an old friend he has not seen for 25 years, the poet Wystan Hugh Auden,  who has rooms in Oxford. It is not a reunion, building bridges or a renewal of friendship. Britten is merely looking for reassurance,

The pair had fallen out after the failure of their opera Paul Bunyan. 

Auden, who was brought up in Birmingham,  believes Britten wants him to write the libretto and suddenly finds purpose to his rambling, shambolic life. He is after all the son in law of Mann. 

He had married the German writer's daughter Erika in 1935 in what was a marriage of convenience for her to obtain British citizenship. The pair never lived together but remained friends and married until her death in 1969.

But Auden's family connection is for naught. Myfanwy Piper, wife of the artist John Piper had already done the job. Britten did not want words or collaboration, he just wanted support, assurance, confirmation.

The imaginary meeting is the crux of Alan Bennett's new play which is on tour after a successful run at the National. Bennett uses the device of a play within a play with actors playing the parts of actors playing the parts and even throws in the author, Simon Bubb as the intense Neil, to question the interpretation.

The result can at times be confusing. There are two long scenes when the excellent Desmond Barrit  who plays Fitz the actor playing Auden, and the equally impressive Malcolm Sinclair who plays Henry the actor playing Britten verbally spar.

Britten attempts to claim that the distinguished writer is the victim in Death in Venice denying Auden's claim that he preys on little boys.


Are we watching two actors playing actors playing the famous pair or the famous pair themselves? Have we left the imaginary play within the play Caliban's Day behind and moved on to how Bennett imagined such a meeting would go?

Auden, incidentally, always thought Shakespeare's The Tempest was unfinished and needed an epilogue, hence the title of the play in a play.

Commentating on the whole thing is Matthew Cottle with a fine performance as Donald who is in turn playing Humphrey Carpenter, the man form the BBC sent to interview Auden and the man who will write biographies of both men sometime in the future.

On his arrival at Auden's dingy rooms he is mistaken for a rent boy Auden has ordered much in the same way the rest of us order a pizza or a balti-takeaway. Sex is that casual as indeed is the dial a nice boy Stuart played by Tim who is in turn played by Luke Norris.

The first half sets the scene for those who don't know about Auden and Britten's homosexuality and also Auden's attitude to personal hygiene and his view that peeing in the kitchen sink was not only acceptable but normal. There is also much reference to the male dangly bits. All a little on the sordid side, sordid with a smile maybe, but sordid none the less so perhaps it is not one for maiden aunts.

That being said there are some very funny lines and sharp observations and Barrit and Sinclair milk every one of them with interest while Selina Cadell as Kay the stage manager in charge of the run through and workshop keeps feet and actor egos on the ground.

A mention to for Ben Woodford, a Bishop Vesey's pupil from Sutton Coldfield, who plays the boy being auditioned by Britten.

It will not be everyone's cup of tea. The intellectual discussions between Auden and Britten, for example, need some following but the acting and direction by Nicholas Hytner are first class while the writing, as always by Alan Bennett, is polished and to the point. Theatre to enjoy that also keeps the grey cells working. To 02-10-10

Roger Clarke 


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