The Habit Of Art, 99..100.., The House

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE HABIT OF ART at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow,  99..100.. at Silverburn Park, Leven, and THE HOUSE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 25.11.10.
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The Habit Of Art  4 stars ****
99..100..    3 stars ***
The House   3 stars ***

THE SCENE IS AN OXFORD COLLEGE, THE YEAR is 1972, the time is 5 o’clock; and the great poet, now an ageing visiting professor, returns to his rooms to find himself the victim of a nasty schedule clash between the young Humphrey Carpenter of the BBC, who has come to record an interview, and a local rent boy whom he has hired by the hour to provide sexual services.

This is the opening scene of the play-within-a-play that forms the heart of Alan Bennett’s latest London hit, The Habit Of Art, in which we see a group of contemporary National Theatre actors rehearsing a new play by a young writer about an imagined last conversation between the poet, W. H. Auden, and his former friend and admirer Benjamin Britten.  Like Alan Bennett’s last great hit The History Boys, it’s a play acutely sensitive to the shifts of history which have, in a couple of generations, brought the sexuality of gay men like Auden, Britten and Bennett out of the shadows of silence and criminality, and then implicated some of them in the new wave of guilt and recrimination surrounding the abuse of young people by adults.  In The History Boys, the subject is the charged relationship between a much-loved schoolteacher and his bright boy pupils; and in The Habit Of Art, both Auden and Britten are haunted, in different ways, by their feeling for beautiful boys.

For all its complexity and fascination, the situation set up by Bennett in The Habit Of Art  has three serious limitations.  In the first place, it is a play about theatre, full of those little in-jokes that tend to make the art-form seem hopelessly introverted.  Secondly, the 1972 scenes are full  of that kind of smug, ultra-articulate posh-literary banter that makes theatre seem like a bourgeois parlour game, albeit a dirty one.  And thirdly, the actual substance of Auden’s conversation is often blisteringly obscene, to the point where a dozen or two audience members at the Theatre Royal left at the interval.

Despite all that, though, the old craftsman Bennett deftly contrives to weave a silk purse out of this potential sow’s ear.  Nicholas Hytner’s beautiful, spacious National Theatre production features a fine, brave and memorable performance from Desmond Barrit as the unrepentant old Auden, with terrific support from the rest of the 13-strong cast.  And the conclusion is that sex and creativity can never be separated; and that the darkness or grubbiness of the desire does not obliterate the beauty of the work – no matter how much we might wish to live in the kind of tidy world where that would be the case.

If The Habit Of Art represents an outstanding example of how to focus a series of complex themes into a two-and-a-half-hour main-stage play, the National Theatre of Scotland’s latest project is precisely the kind of diffuse event that defies focussed criticism and response.  Developed over a period of seven months, with  substantial co-sponsorship from Fife Council and Scottish Power, 99.. 100.. has been a huge community project, travelling across Fife in search of people’s stories.  It has involved a huge range of Fife-based artists,  from Gregory Burke to the Fence Collective; and now, it comes to fruition in a massive show-cum-installation at Silverburn Park in Leven, featuring a theatre marquee, ten memorable installations in the dank and derelict Silverburn House, some spectacular landscape lighting, and a garden full of weird and wonderful artworks, ranging from hairdresser-turned-artist Alan Grieve’s mobile hair salon – good for persuading people to open up about their lives – to a series of old-style telephone boxes playing recorded conversations with passing Fifers.

So far as quality is concerned, the one-hour 99..100 show, directed like the rest of the project by the excellent NTS Learn boss Simon Sharkey, is a strong piece of state-of-the-art youth  theatre about Fife and its popular history, while the installations range from the sensitive, beautiful and brilliant to the frankly self-absorbed and irrelevant.  It’s difficult, though, to begin to guess – on the strength of one quiet and rainswept night at Silverburn Park – how much real impact this event will have on Fife and its people; and impossible even to find out how much it cost, since the total budget is so hard to disentangle, and so riddled with commercial confidentiality, that it can only be described as “in six figures” – which, appropriately enough, could mean anything, from £100,000, to £999,000.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, meanwhile, the Play, Pie and Pint autumn season ends in a flourish, this week, with a new play by writer and actor Steve McNicoll, perhaps best known to Edinburgh audiences for his recent star turn as the two butlers in the Royal Lyceum’s Importance Of Being Earnest.  The House starts off  brilliantly, as an invigoratingly surreal theatrical collision between a latterday Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and a camp slasher movie; Jim, Jerry and young Joe are three workmen ensconced in the kitchen of some unfortunate client’s house, eating lunch and exchanging wisdom, while upstairs a mysterious electrician called Dylan does his worst, to the accompaniment of an ever-escalating series of horrific sound-effects.

Sadly, though, when Lewis Howden’s avuncular Jerry and James Young’s Joe are left alone, their story takes a soap-operatic turn, as young Joe’s tales of sexual adventure suddenly come home to roost.  Steve McNicoll should leave that kind of cheesy plot-twist to the telly; and pursue his own interest in warped modern masculinities straight up the stairs, to where Kieran Cunningham’s inspired and psychopathic Jim, monkey wrench in hand, is wrestling with the demons of domestic disorder, and bringing them down, with a crash.

The Habit Of Art at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 99..100.. at Silverburn Park, Leven, and The House at Oran Mor, Glasgow, all until Saturday, 27 November.

ENDS ENDS

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