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David Yelland on playing Benjamin Britten in The Habit of Art

Posted on 10 October 2018

Following a slew of four and five star reviews for performances in York, Brighton, Salisbury and Oxford, Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art comes to the Belgrade this November in a new production from Original Theatre Company.

Based around an imagined meeting between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten, the show stars Matthew Kelly and David Yelland as the poet and composer respectively.

Ahead of its arrival in Coventry 6-10 November, David Yelland told us more about the play and life as an actor.

The Habit of Art

What did you know about The Habit of Art before coming to this production?

It’s going to be a voyage of discovery, to coin a phrase. I never saw the original production. I was sent the script and I think it’s remarkable but that shouldn’t be a surprise as it’s by Alan Bennett. I’ve only done one other play of his and really did enjoy that very much. I played Anthony Blunt in A Question of Attribution, one of his Single Spies plays. I loved that. All three of us – me, Matthew Kelly and director Philip Franks – have done Bennett at some point. This is just the second time for me and I’m looking forward to it enormously. I didn’t see the original so I am coming to it freshly without any preconceptions. I’ve not worked with Matthew Kelly before, although I’ve worked with the director Philip Franks. We were both in Witness for the Prosecution in London and he has directed me twice – once in Nicholas Nickleby and in A Marvellous Years for Plums, which was about the Suez crisis, down in Chichester.

What do you know about Benjamin Britten?

Very little. I love music but am not really into his particular sort of stuff. I have been listening to quite a bit of it and it’s growing on me. But there is a connection in that when I was very young the first time I went in front of the public was in something that Benjamin Britten had written called Let’s Make An Opera /The Little Sweep. It was in front of the Prime Minister of Singapore. All these years later here I am playing the man himself.

The Habit of Art

In The Habit of Art you are an actor in a play playing an actor playing Britten in a play – how does that work?

That remains to be seen. I’ve never had to do anything like that before. That’s the excitement. When we get into rehearsal we discover a way of doing it. I think Bennett did it like that so that he didn’t have to deal have lots and lots of information about these people and the audience wouldn’t get bored listening to ‘Britten was this sort of man, Auden was this sort of man’. The actors playing the roles in the play answer these awkward questions during the course of the play.

Britten isn’t the first real person you have played, is he?

I’ve played the Prince of Wales twice – once on screen (Chariots of Fire) and once on stage. There are particular ways to approach playing a real person. With someone like Prince of Wales he is very, very well known in terms of what he looked like and sounded like because of his prominence in British society. I’m hoping people won’t know too much about Benjamin Britten so I can get away with being not exactly like him. But I don’t think those are the sort of questions you should be asking as an actor or rather as an audience. Several Winston Churchill films came out recently with John Lithgow playing him in The Crown and Gary Oldman in the film The Darkest Hour. To some extent with people who are so well known such as Churchill it’s inevitable you have to be like them. With someone like Britten you possibly have a broader canvas because they are not so well known. With Auden, I remember studying him at school and at university but he’s not generally well-known.

The Habit of Art

What is The Habit of Art about?

It’s not just about recreating two people. It’s about the creative process, about friendship, wonderful Bennett themes really. One of the things I love about his plays is not only that they are blissfully funny but are written by a man who, I feel, cares Not necessarily in a hot-headed political way – although he does have political views I know – but without wishing to be pretentious he has a lot of humanity.

How do you choose roles nowadays?

You get to that stage where you get a bit more choosey than when you’re starting out but I’m quite happy to keep working. I was in Witness for the Prosecution in London for six months and it was hard work but I thoroughly enjoyed it. That production is going wonderfully well and is something I would never have turned down. But you do get a bit more choosey as you get older because you think, ‘do I want to spend the next number of months doing this really?’ Sometimes the answer is no. Not often, but sometimes. I’m available for offers.

The Habit of Art

You appeared in the big budget Netflix series The Crown – is being part of a huge project like that as intimate as doing theatre?

Something like that is not as intimate as doing theatre but I was very well treated. I only did four or five days on it, it wasn’t an enormous role but I thoroughly enjoyed it and the end product is brilliant. The leading roles were taken brilliantly.

How do you view touring and the prospect of coming to York?

I’m looking forward to coming up to York. I haven’t been there for years and have never played the theatre. Touring I do like, although haven’t done it for a while. A perk of touring is to see places you wouldn’t get to see in the normal run of things. I’ve been all over the place through touring.

The Habit of Art

The Habit of Art shows at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry from Tuesday 6 until Saturday 10 November. Tickets are available to book now.