Writer: Julian Mitchell
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
The title of Julian Mitchell’s 1930s-set drama brings to mind L P Hartley’s opening sentence of The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.” It is not only the sense of time which suggests we are looking in on another world. The arcane rulesets of the all-boys public school, far removed from life on the outside, are as foreign to us as the Soviet Union to which one of the play’s young idealistic protagonists has hung his hat.
And yet, there is much that is familiar too. Written in the early 1980s, its themes of suicide in young gay men, of political expediency when trying to recruit followers to a cause, of authority figures imposing rules on those beneath them while bending the rules themselves, all resonate just as strongly today. The past may be a foreign country, but history repeats – or maybe more accurately, never stops.
Inspired by Mitchell’s fascination of what may have turnedestablishmentarian (and known homosexual) Guy Burgess into one of the notorious “Cambridge spies”, who betrayed state secrets to the Russians, Another Country looks at the relationships between the young, effete Guy Bennett (Rob Callender) and his fellow pupils at an unnamed public school. Peter McKintosh’s deceptively simple set bothevokes the setting and encloses it – a succession of oak-panelled cell walls highlighting the pupils’ sense of, as one of them puts in “enforced mutual incarceration”.
The system of school etiquette is shattered to breaking point when a schoolmate commits suicide after having been caught in flagrante. Tellingly, the outrage is less that his partner was male, more that he was from another house and the two of them allowed themselves to be found out. With no adult staff members present on stage, the pressures of the situation highlight how the rigid structure of the school forces its boys to behave like adults regardless of whether they possess the maturity. Throughout, the two characters who seem the most sensible are the Communist ideologue Judd (Will Attenborough) – whose paternal mentoring of the hilariously nervy first year, Wharton (a superb turn by Bill Milner) reveals a compassionate side to a young man otherwise in thrall to his socialist beliefs – and the devil-may-care, flamboyant Bennett.
It is Callender’s work in this rôle which elevates the whole production. His is a character who knows that his affection for men will never be a “passing phase”, that he could and should never hide that side to conform – and that such necessary honesty will be both liberating and crippling. It’s a portrayal which flits, like Mitchell’s script, from overblown camp to touching poignancy on a sixpence.
Elsewhere in the young, all-male cast, Mark Quartley quietly excels as head of house Barclay, who after his friend’s suicide finds it harder to reconcile the way of the rulebook and the way of the heart. And as the sole adult in the cast, Julian Wadham’s Uncle Vaughan, the fey conscientious objector prevented from taking tea with the prefects because he was never one himself, provides an echo from the boys’ future in more ways than one. His character being a slightly subdued distillation of several of the boys’ more pronounced characters. As an actor, Wadham played Barclay in the original 1982 production, providing just another layer of irony in the concept of repetitive history.
It feels remarkable that this play is over thirty years old: in many ways, it feels more contemporary than David Hare’s South Downs, another public school-set play which directory Jeremy Herrin staged – then, as now, for Chichester Festival Theatre – in 2011. In a year which has seen Russia clamp down on gay rights while England and Wales celebrates same-sex marriage, while government clamps down on benefits cheats but turns a blind eye to a cabinet member cheat her expenses, Another Country feels utterly contemporary, wholly relevant – and completely unmissable.
Booking until 21st June