'The Habit of Art' is the fourth in the current National Theatre live broadcast series, allowing those of us not in London to see the performances direct from the theatre. This is the third and the best I have seen. Apart from the unfortunate replacement of Michael Gambon (through illness, I understand) with Richard Griffiths, who was excellent but Gambon would have been better, there is absolutely nothing to quibble about. The play itself is brilliant: a multi-layered postmodern masterpiece, centred on a meeting between poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) in 1972, some 30 years after the failure of the opera they wrote together. But the play is not just about this meeting; it is a rehearsal of the play, so includes the stage manager - a brilliant Frances de la Tour - who steps in occasionally to read the part for an absent actor, the writer, who must field complaints about his play, and even a casual walk on from another play being performed elsewhere in the theatre complex.
Because of the intimate nature of the production, it is easily accommodated to the cameras filming the stage - much better than the earlier productions - and indeed, much thought and work have clearly gone into the filming so it is seamless and unobtrusive.
This is a play about art - the art of poetry, the art of music, the art of theatre and playwriting, and of acting. It is incredibly funny and always engrossing. If these broadcasts are ever made available on DVD, don't hesitate.
It is truly marvellous. A triumph.
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