The Habit of Art (The National Theatre, 1st May 2010)

I liked The Habit of Art because I am normally interested in plays which explore the process of putting on a play.  When the audience enters the auditorium they are faced with a very cluttered set.  What becomes clear is that this is a set within a set.  In the middle is a desk with piles of books around it and there is a typewriter stuffed underneath. Surrounding this are kitchen facilities, mixing desks and office desks.  It becomes clear that this is the backstage area surrounding the set of another play.  There is also an elevated area with a piano which become Benjamin Britten’s rooms.  The play we are about to watch is actually a rehearsal of a play.

The experience is like, to use the cliché, peeling an onion to reveal the layers.  The play is about the relationship between Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings/Henry) and WH Auden (Richard Griffiths/Fitz) as seen through the eyes of their biographer Humphrey Carpenter/Tim (Adrian Scarborough).  However, the characters seem to reveal a little of themselves through the characters they play.  Kay, the stage manager, (Frances De La Tour) seems to be able to keep it all together as Fitz, and Henry try to make sense of the play they are in and Tim desperately needs some direction to be able to grasp the role he plays.

The play is funny and engaging.

Reviews

Habit of Art in The Guardian
Habit of Art in The Telegraph
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Drama on College Green (May 7th onwards)

Michael Portillo being interviewed on College Green before the coalition government was formed (7th May 2010)

In the theatre, audience participation is often encouraged.  During the election campaign, the live leaders TV debates was a new element, and clearly had an impact in the way that a television audience viewed the election.  However, It was so strange that the studio audiences were not allowed to respond to what was being said.  I think ‘bigotgate’  made the election campaign a little more interesting because we glimpsed behind those managed moments.

After the polls closed there were still the media manipulated images.  However, these seemed to be of a quality in terms of media presentation which has not been seen for sometime.  At times it was the spin doctors at their very best.  This was the election that gave us Nick Clegg, the supposedly reluctant kingmaker, skipping between sides and grasping power for himself.  That Clegg/Cameron Press Conference in the Downing Street garden was a spectacular show and the spin doctors made sure that the sun was shinning.  Yes, David Cameron had been rude about Nick Clegg in the past but they are friends now – how jocular it all was.

The enduring image, and the event of the who political post poll show, was that of Gordon Brown and his family leaving Downing Street. Not only was it a very cleverly choreographed moment, but it was one that worked beautifully.  I’m sure even the reporters gasped as the door of Downing Street opened and the two boys came out and were led down the street to the waiting car.  The British system is fairly brutal when it comes to the handover of the office of PM, but the image of the Browns leaving their home in Downing Street for the very last time made them seem human in the way the television images during the campaign hadn’t.  These images of the last moments in Downing Street were presented to show Brown as the family man, the reluctant leader, now being able to focus on the role he wanted most – that of father and husband.  This was such a contrast to the image of Brown, so desperate to be PM, that we had been presented with since 1997.

However, rather than these managed moments, the drama which unfolded in Whitehall and Westminster, just after the polls closed, was a theatrical event in itself, and presented moments when the viewer could glimpse just briefly behind those managed moments.  As the days passed by members of the public started to watch the media at work, as well as watching the images on television.  The gem of all the post poll interviews had to be the moment when Sky’s Adam Boulton, bloated with rage, laid into Alastair Campbell live on TV.  It felt as if the confrontation was straight out of The Thick of It, and for a moment I thought that both men had forgotten they were live on TV.  One day I watched John Prescott on the BBC lunchtime news presenting the ‘wait and see case’ and at the same time taking on a heckler in the watching crowd. It was strange to hear the spontaneous applause at the end of the interview. How far away this was from the three party leaders desperately trying to be media friendly on the live TV debates, and with the television studio audience sitting politely listening and not allowed to applaud.

Further Information

Adam Boulton and Alastair Campbell on Sky News via You Tube

Gordon Brown leaving Downing Street via You Tube

John Prescott and heckler via You Tube

Cameron and Clegg Press conference (ITN on You Tube).