A witty and compassionate play, Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art next month graces the Coventry Belgrade stage and Malvern Theatres, with Olivier Award-winning actor Matthew Kelly in the lead role. What’s On recently caught up with Matthew to find out more...

The Habit Of Art is one of renowned playwright Alan Bennett’s more recent offerings. The play explores a fictitious meeting between poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. It’s been described as ‘wonderfully and sometimes filthily funny, but also deeply and unexpectedly moving’.

“It’s a play within a play,” says Matthew Kelly, who plays Auden. “So four of us play actors who are also playing parts in a play called Caliban’s Day. There’s Auden and Britten, their biographer Humphrey Carpenter, and Auden’s rent boy. So really, that’s quite tricky because it’s hard to know what Auden was actually like. I’ve seen a few interviews and listened to his accent because I know Richard Griffiths adopted a very high-pitched voice when he played the part originally in London, and that was very, very effective. With acting, you don’t have to be exactly the person you’re playing if they’re a historical figure - but at the same time, you kind of do. It’s a weird one.”

Matthew is very much looking forward to playing Auden: “It’s lovely for me to play this part because it was played by Richard first and he and I were at college together. I mean, honestly, Auden as a man was just a complete mess. At one point in the play, they ask my character if I’ve got my props to play Auden in the Caliban’s Day play. My line in response to that is, ‘Yes - I have my cigarettes, my elephantine urine-stained trousers, my disgusting handkerchief and my plastic bag’.
“I think he was a good-hearted man, but Auden’s face has been compared to a scrotum, so he was quite an unfortunate man too! The original line reads something like, ‘When you see his face, one wonders what his scrotum looks like’. But he had a condition called Touraine-Solente-Golé Syndrome that made him look that way, so I did wonder what to think when I was approached to do the role!”

So why does Matthew think Alan Bennett chose to structure The Habit Of Art as a play within a play?

"It gives it a neat little framework and allows Bennett to comment on his own creation through the four actor characters. It’s cheeky, really, because it means he can comment on things he’s written as part of Caliban’s Day. So it’s very funny because you can deliver information about what’s going on in Caliban’s Day through hindsight in the wider setting of the entire play.
“Actually, Caliban’s Day was inspired by Auden’s poem, The Sea And The Mirror, which was a commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest; he thought that Caliban hadn’t had his say. But the poem is very hard to access. I’m sure Auden understood what he wrote, but for the rest of us mere mortals, we can’t quite get it. So if the play Caliban’s Day was on its own and just a reflection of that poem, I think the audience would be very confused. To make it a play within a play makes it easier to understand what Auden and Bennett are trying to get at - that the ordinary man is unspoken and unregarded.

Matthew also explains how the play comments on artistic endeavour: “What matters is the artistic work - it’s the work that keeps lauded artists like Auden and Britten going. It’s our artistic work that identifies us and that we identify with. Auden says, ‘If I don’t work, then who am I?’ He sees poetry as a craft as much as an art. Auden insisted he’d write a poem for anything, so he was a remarkable man in that way. His artistic output became very small towards the end of his life because he became almost too venerated to really truly speak through his work. He was shackled by his own importance in the artistic world, which is really sad, I think.”

The Habit Of Art is about plenty more than artistic endeavour, though. “It’s also about sex, death, creativity and biography. So ideally, its messages are giving a voice to the unregarded as well as the voice behind the great work. Those who are lauded, who are stars like Britten and Auden and so admired for their work, are often misrepresented in biography. A lot of what is passed off as biography is in reality just idle curiosity, general tittle-tattle and impertinence.”

Matthew has certainly made a name for himself in the theatre world since the days when he rarely seemed to be off our television screens. Coming to people’s attention in TV shows like Game For A Laugh, You Bet! and Stars In Their Eyes, he’s more recently earned rave reviews in stage productions of classic plays including Of Mice And Men, for which he won an Olivier Award, and Waiting For Godot.

“I could never go back to Stars In Their Eyes or something like that because I can’t do Saturday night big show presenting anymore. But I would if it came up. I mean, I have an insatiable desire to be the centre of attention, so why wouldn’t I?! I’m just as happy in a sound booth doing a voiceover, though. But I do love theatre. Acting isn’t super hard work; it’s nothing like working down a mine or digging up a road. I’m just playing with a giant dressing-up box really, but the hours are long. You have to be patient and have stamina. Still, theatre keeps me going - The Habit Of Art speaks true after all! - and I always believe that the thing I’m doing at the time is the best thing I’ve ever done. If I didn’t think that, I don’t know if I’d be able to carry on with this job. Generally, I just love the company of actors; they’re kind, generous, spirited and supportive people, even if they are completely bonkers!"


The Habit Of Art shows at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from 6 to 10 November then at Malvern Theatres from 27 November to 1 December.