Elliot Levey

The actor on The Habit of Art, working with Alan Bennett and how much fun it is to be narky

The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett’s new play, is to be screened at Queen’s Film Theatre on April 22 as part of the National Theatre Live Season. In it, curly-haired, husky voiced (not always, he had a cold the day of the interview) actor Elliot Levey plays a young writer, credited only as the Author, horrified at what a troupe of actors have done to his masterpiece.

‘I’m really surly,’ Levey says cheerfully of his character. ‘I spend a lot of the play in a strop in the corner.’

The Habit of Art is a play about a group of actors rehearsing a play written by the Author about a fictional meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten towards the ends of their creative and actual lives. Richard Griffith’s, for example, is credited as both WH Auden and Fitz, the actor playing Auden in Caliban's Day (the Author's play).

There’s also a biographer, a rent boy and Auden’s penchant for punctuality, but you’ll have to see the play to work how they fit into the structure.

Auden and Britten are at the nadir of their creativity, with Auden whiling away his last days in Oxford and Britten paralyzed by the temptations offered in his new play Death in Venice, and each hopes the other can revitalize the other.

Meanwhile the actors playing them have been freed from directorial control: he’s at a conference, and they have taken liberties with the play. Griffith’s Fitz keeps forgetting his lines and wants to add a song and dance routine – much to the narked Author’s horror.

Levey admits that the role has given him more sympathy for the plight of writers in the theatre.

'You do see it happening in rehearsals,' he says. 'Some actor will want to flex their status muscles and suggest to the director that they change a line right in front of the author. All the other actors are sitting thinking "Just leave it! It was better how he had it!"'

Although, Levey adds, pretentious young writers like his character can be just as bad. They haven’t worked out what actors bring to the table in creative terms and panic when they see them playing with their words.

‘It all works out in the end,' Levey says, ‘we are all just as petty and childish and vain as each other!' Except, he adds diplomatically, for Bennett who is wonderful to work with.

The Habit of Art is an interesting addition to the National Theatre’s Live Season. As Levey points out, part of the appeal of the Live Season is the chance to see not just the play but backstage as well. ‘It is fascinating to see the actors standing in the wings, talking about their lunch one minute. The next minute they go on stage and become totally different people.’

With The Habit of Art that means you get to see actors backstage preparing to play actors preparing to play WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. It’s a theatrical Hall of Mirrors, reflecting itself back into eternity.

Levey, who acted in the NT Live production of All’s Well That Ends Well, doesn’t think it has gone far enough. He believes that the National Theatre should actually add yet another mirror to the array.

‘I think they should send cameras to all the venues and film the audiences there,’ he explains gleefully. ‘Then show it to the audience in the National Theatre.’

It’s an interesting idea, but there’s enough happening in The Habit of Art to be going on with for now.

The Habit of Art will be screened at Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast on April 22 at 6.45pm

Tammy Moore