In a National Theatre rehearsal room, Michael Gambon has been wrestling for three days with Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art. Michael has given many prodigious performances at the National, most recently Falstaff in Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays, though there were occasional memory lapses which he covered with Elizabethan rhubarb. I had a couple of letters complaining that my production had made Sir Michael incomprehensible, to which I replied politely, although he’s a famous hoaxer so he may have written them himself. One of them compared him with suspicious pomposity to that admirable Shakespearean and model of clarity, Simon Russell Beale.
He now seems much less confident than he was as Falstaff. He’s playing an old actor who is struggling with the part of the poet W. H. Auden to Alex Jennings’ Benjamin Britten in a play about Auden and Britten within a play about a theatre company putting on the same play. Alex has an almost mystical faith in the great tradition of British acting, so he’s urging Michael on. With them on stage is Frances de la Tour, who in the face of life’s absurdities has an eyebrow permanently raised and a voice permanently tuned to deadpan. She’s playing a stage manager, and I’m sure that she can nurse Michael through anything that goes off-piste.
But at the moment he can barely get to the end of a sentence. And then, suddenly, the blood drains from him. He staggers, and falls into a chair. We call for help, an oxygen tank is hurried into the room, then a stretcher. Michael is wheeled out, the oxygen mask over his face. One of the stage managers goes with him in the ambulance to St Thomas’ Hospital. As he’s carried into A&E, she asks him whether there’s any message he’d like her to take back to the rehearsal room. ‘Don’t worry about those bastards,’ he says. ‘They’re already on the phone to Simon Russell Beale.’ And as he speaks, I’m with Alan Bennett and the rest of the company recasting the part. Simon Russell Beale is doing something else, probably making a documentary about Renaissance choral music: he is as erudite as he is audible. So he’s not in the running. But once we know that nothing serious has happened to Michael, we barely have a thought for him. We’re in the canteen, overlooking the river. Tourist boats glide under Waterloo Bridge, and glum office workers stare at computer screens in the building next door, while we make a list of actors who are available for the part, all of them distinguished, none of them immune to our brutal assessments of their suitability. By the end of the day, Michael has been advised to withdraw from the play, and I’ve called Richard Griffiths, an actor renowned for his delicacy and wit, but also for his immense girth. Alan has already written lines to justify the casting of a fat actor in the part of Auden, who, although dissolute, was not even plump.
As he’s carried into A&E, she asks Gambon whether there’s any message he’d like her to take back to the rehearsal room. "Don’t worry about those bastards," he says. "They’re already on the phone to Simon Russell Beale."
You start with a vision, and you deliver a compromise. And you’re pulled constantly in different directions. So although you want the actor who plays W. H. Auden to be as much like W. H. Auden as possible, you know that the play will work best with an actor who can remember what the playwright wrote.
You know that what works generally trumps all other considerations, and you also know that if you care only about what works, you’ll end up with something slick but meretricious.
You want a play to be challenging, ambitious, nuanced and complicated. You also want it to sell tickets.
You want playwrights to write exactly the plays they want to write. You also want what they write to reflect your own image of what your theatre should stand for.
You want your theatre to vibrate with the rude, disruptive energy of the carnival. But in your heart of hearts, you recoil from the chaos: you seek intimations of celestial harmony.
You want to look into the abyss, and make sense of human misery. But you flinch from pretension, despise self-importance, and take refuge in irony.
You want Shakespeare to be our contemporary. You also know him to be writing very specifically about a world that is separated from our own by four hundred years.
You want to tread a tightrope between all your conflicting impulses, to find poise and balance. But you despise yourself for your caution; you want your work to be full of jagged edges and careless abandon.
So when Richard Griffiths picks up the phone and says, ‘It may interest you to know that you have called me from my exercise bike,’ you dismiss the unrealistic thought that he may be thinner than he was when you last saw him, because you know it doesn’t matter. You explain to him the pickle you’re in, and you aren’t surprised that it doesn’t occur to him to remind you that you might have asked him to play W. H. Auden in the first place. But Richard is always a model of good grace, and he says he’ll start on Monday.
Monday comes, and Richard is stuck in traffic on the A40. He calls to say he’ll be half an hour late. He’s one of the world’s great raconteurs, but his stories never have a destination and they go on for hours. And we’re now two weeks behind, which is why Alan Bennett says plaintively from the back of the room, ‘Start rehearsing as soon as he arrives or we’ll be here all morning with Traffic Jams I Have Known.’
So that’s what we do. And The Habit of Art, though not as popular, or probably as good, as Alan’s previous play, The History Boys, turns out to be worth a couple of hours of the audience’s time, as it is provocative, funny, touching, sad and original. The playwright, the actors and I have spent the short rehearsal time left to us trying to reconcile our high ideals with what’s achievable. We want to make art, and we know we’re in show business. It’s one of the balancing acts that the National Theatre, and this book, are about.
More about the author
The Sunday Times Bestseller
This is the inside story of twelve years at the helm of Britain’s greatest theatre.
It is a story of lunatic failures and spectacular successes such as The History Boys, War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors; of opening the doors of the National Theatre to a broader audience than ever before, and changing the public’s perception of what theatre is for. It is about probing Shakespeare from every angle and reinventing the classics. About fostering new talent and directing some of the most celebrated actors of our times. Its cast includes the likes of Alan Bennett, Maggie Smith, Mike Leigh, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren.
Intimate, candid and insightful, Balancing Acts is a passionate exploration of the art and alchemy of making theatre.