Remember Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art at York Theatre Royal? Now it’s online

Matthew Kelly as York-born poet W H Auden when Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art was rehearsed and staged at York Theatre Royal in August and September 2018. Picture: James Findlay

YORK Theatre Royal’s 2018 co-production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art has been made available to stream by OriginalTheatre Online.

Directed by Philip Franks, a second British tour was due to start this month with Matthew Kelly and David Yelland reprising their roles of poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

However, both the tour and a trip to New York for the Brits Off Broadway have been scrapped after the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

In turn, this has prompted The Original Theatre Company, the Theatre Royal’s co-producers, to release the production online.

Matthew Kelly as W H Auden and David Yelland as Benjamin Britten in The Habit Of Art, now available to stream through Original Theatre Online

Leeds playwright Bennett’s The Habit Of Art imagines a 1972 meeting between friends and collaborators Auden and Britten – their first in 30 years – where they mull over life, art, sexuality and death.

What drew Matthew Kelly to playing York-born Auden? “He has a razor-sharp wit and we have a very similar outlook about work which is the habit of art. I am the same,” he says.

“I have to keep working – I’m nearly 70 [his birthday falls on May 9] – not  because I need the money, but because the theory comes into play that the longer you hang on, the longer you will hang on. Otherwise you fall off the perch.”

The Habit Of Art requires Kelly to play an actor playing an actor playing a real-life person. If this sounds confusing, “No, it actually clarifies things,” says Kelly, clarifying things.

Philip Franks, director of The Habit Of Art, who also directed Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in The Tempest in York last summer

“It’s a very clever device because it means you can be funny about what you do, you can comment on it and you can explain stuff. You can come out of the play Caliban’s Day, which the actors are rehearsing, and then it’s a play about the fictional meeting of Auden and Britten. 

“What’s wonderful about Bennett’s play is, not only have you got the finest composer of our time and the finest poet of our time, but you also, in my opinion, have the greatest playwright of our time.” 

Kelly continues: “So, you’ve got all those words being sewn together by our greatest playwright, who’s kind, accessible, very erudite and talks about sex in a very earthy way.

“He also gives a voice to the unregarded, who don’t usually have a voice. Generally, the great people, the stars of our time, get the final word and the people who look after them, what are commonly called ‘the little people’, really don’t get any say at all. They are the forgotten heroes who nurtured these stars.”

“He’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love,” says Matthew Kelly of The Habit Of Art playwright Alan Bennett

Former Stars In Their Eyes presenter Kelly completed a hattrick of Bennett roles with The Habit Of Art, having appeared as unconventional teacher Hector in The History Boys in 2013 and Czech author Franz Kafka in Kafka’s Dick, opposite his son Matthew Rixon, as a younger Kafka, at York Theatre Royal in March 2001.

“We were hoping Alan Bennett would come to York because he lives in Leeds and it’s only a hop and a skip away, but he didn’t come,” recalls Kelly.

“A couple of years later, I met him at Heathrow and he came up to me and apologised for not coming to the York production. He was terribly kind about it. “Years later, I did The History Boys in Sheffield, then Kafka’s Dick again in Bath. On both those shows he sent champagne and a Good Luck postcard.

“He always knows what’s going on and he’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love. The great thing about Alan is he’s very supportive of all productions, although he doesn’t go and see them.”

Original Theatre Online is streaming a second touring production too: Ali Milles’s The Croft, starring Gwen Taylor and again directed by Franks. Both that show and The Habit Of Art can be streamed any time until June.

“We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls,” says The Original Theatre Company director Alastair Whatley.

Alastair Whatley, artistic director of The Original Theatre Company, says: “We know how disappointing it has been to our audiences, cast, creatives and Original Theatre to have to close our shows. We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls. 

“However, the Original Theatre Company operates with no Arts Council support and relies almost solely on the box-office takings. With our two productions of The Habit Of Art and The Croft both out on national tours, the immediate cancellations are financially devastating for us.

“But we are determined, wherever possible, to meet our financial commitments made to our actors, stage managers and suppliers, who are all dependent on us to survive the coming months.  

“Every penny we make through this online release will go to the people who helped make this show, who now find themselves in a hugely precarious financial position.”

Both plays are free to watch although The Original Theatre suggests a minimum donation of £2.50. 

For full streaming details, visit originaltheatreonline.com.

Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art heads from York to New York for Brits Off Broadway

Matthew Kelly, left, and David Yelland in The Habit Of Art. Picture: Helen Maybanks

YORK Theatre Royal’s co-production of Alan Bennett’s comedy The Habit Of Art with the Original Theatre Company is heading to New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.

Premiered in York in September 2018, Philip Franks’s show starring Matthew Kelly will be  one of eight productions featured in 59E59 Theaters’ annual celebration of theatre from the UK.

Franks’s production begins its second British tour in March ahead of the American dates from May 29 to June 28 in one of 59E59 Theaters’ three off-Broadway spaces, having first toured Britain in Autumn 2018.

The Habit Of Art director Philip Franks

Leeds playwright Bennett’s 2009 play imagines a meeting between friends and collaborators W.H. Auden, the York-born poet, and composer Benjamin Britten. Most of the original cast are in the latest production, including Kelly, David Yelland and Yorkshire actor Benjamin Chandler, who made his York Theatre Royal debut in the 2018 company.

Kelly says: “I’ve done Brits on Broadway before in [Hull playwright] Richard Bean’s play Toast, which is very different to The Habit Of Art. But Americans are going to love Alan Bennett because they think they’re going to see something very British.”

John Wark, left, and Ben Chandler in The Habit Of Art. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Director Franks adds: “New York is the most wonderful city but there’s a huge challenge because it’s such an English play. I hope very much audiences will respond.”

The 2020 production of The Habit Of Art is produced by the Original Theatre Company and Anthology with Peter Stickney and York Theatre Royal.

Franks last directed in York in Summer 2019 when his Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of The Tempest ran at the Elizabethan pop-up theatre on the Castle car park.