The central action is an imaginary meeting in 1972 between the poet W.H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten. The two artists had collaborated on an unsuccessful opera on the mythic American figure Paul Bunyan 25 years earlier, and the failure caused a rift in their friendship. Now Britten is having problems with his new work, based on Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"—the novel's theme of homosexual desire strikes a bit close to home for the discreetly gay maestro—and he wants the advice of Auden, who never hid his same-sex tastes. During their encounter, they are interrupted by a rent boy, or male prostitute, hired by Auden, and a BBC interviewer who will later write biographies of both these celebrated men. Characters often address the audience with observations on the nature of their trades, and the furniture spouts whimsical poetry.
Bennett adds yet another layer of observation by setting the Auden-Britten meeting as a play-within-a-play in rehearsal. The temperamental playwright hovers around the edges while the insecure actors wrestle with his difficult script and the efficient stage manager keeps the proceedings moving. Reflections on the nature of theater and acting are added to this intellectual stew of thoughts on biography, music, poetry, higher education, and male genitalia. Bennett not only examines the nature of art and its role in personal relationships, but also the particular role of the gay artist. It's a broad canvas, and Bennett fills it with color, wit, and humanity. Every character is fully realized, even the rent boy, who could have easily been consigned to comic relief. Nicholas Hytner delivers a well-paced and commanding production, captured for the cinema by director Robin Lough.
Richard Griffiths expertly conveys Auden's aching loneliness, crotchety fussiness, and staggering intellect, as well as that of Fitz, the testy performer acting the role. Alex Jennings makes a properly prissy Britten and a saucy Henry, the actor playing him. Frances de la Tour nearly steals the play with her dry asides and caustic comments as Kay, the besieged stage manager. Stephen Wight is much more than a pretty face as the hustler, displaying a budding intelligence to go with his boyish beauty. Adrian Scarborough scores as the brittle biographer, as does Elliot Levey as the overly sensitive playwright.
As far as I'm concerned, this first season has been a smashing success, and there is more to come. The National has announced an additional broadcast for June, the rollicking Dion Boucicault comedy "London Assurance," and two productions for the 2010-11 season, "Hamlet" and a stage adaptation of "Frankenstein." If there's another volcano eruption, we can still get our fill of fantastic British theater.
Presented by NT Live on April 22 on movie screens around the world.For encore screenings, visit www.ntlive.com.