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LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Lizzie Loveridge
Iíve never felt anything but lonely since the day I came here.
The same faces, day after day, year after year --
And none I ever want to see again.
The newly refurbished Arts Theatre, after being dark for two years, is hosting a welcome revival of Another Country, Julian Mitchellís play, which two decades ago launched the acting careers of Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth.
Another Country is set in the 1930s in an English public school, a fee paying boarding school for boys aged 13 to 18. This is how the English upper classes teach men conformity, membership in a social group and the hidden curriculum, repression and homosexuality. Schooldays are full of ritual and codified language, learned and passed on from generation to generation. The power structure of these establishments is delegated from the masters to a body of prefects who are able to run their "houses"(a vertical organisation within the school) and mete out discipline. There is competition between the houses for cups and kudos. The serving class are the youngest boys who are called "fags" meaning a drudge. Homosexuality is the norm: whether this is for some a stage in developing their sexual identity or the result of taking boys away from their families and homes at a vulnerable age, I know not.
The two central characters of the play are Guy Bennet (Tom Wisdom) and Tommy Judd (Ben Meyjes). Bennet is attractive and amusingly camp, a clever boy prey to his own emotions and desires. Judd is studious, brilliant and an avowed Marxist. Both boys are articulate, natural rebels, one flamboyantly and indiscreetly homosexual, the other political. Early on in the play Martineau is found hanged because he has been caught with another boy. The plot of the play concerns selection of prefects and membership in the elite body, called Twenty Two. Both Judd and Bennet try to stop Fowler (Ferdy Roberts), a bombastic, military type from becoming head of house but both are betrayed by boys they counted as friends. A highlight of the play is the visit to the school by Vaughan Cunningham, a liberal writer (Patrick Ryecart) for whom Mitchell has written a part full of wit and anecdote.
Guy Bennet is a thinly disguised Guy Burgess, one half of the Burgess/MacLean spy scandal of the 1950s (both men having been to Cambridge, worked for the Foreign Office and defected to Russia). This far reaching spy scandal later unmasked Russian agents Kim Philby and even Sir Anthony Blunt, the art historian who was Master of The Queenís Pictures. Guy Burgess went to Eton. They had all been to Trinity College, Cambridge. They had all been recruited to the Soviet cause at university in the 1930s. Julian Mitchellís thesis is that spying on his country is Bennetís (Burgess) revenge for being badly treated because of his homosexuality.
Tom Wisdom has a tall order following Rupert Everett but he handles it well and his performance strengthens in the second half of the play. Ben Meyjes pitches it exactly right as the analytical socialist, straight faced as he delivers some lines full of cant but likeable for all that. I also liked Martin Hutsonís desperation as Barclay, the outgoing head of house who takes Martineauís death to heart. Edward Purver has a glassy eyed ruthlessness as heir apparent, Menzies, ably assisted by the (unidentited) actor playing Devenish, who is destined to become a country squire. Patrick Ryecart is superb and gets the biggest laughs of the evening as the scandalous old roué.
Stephen Henry has made a superb West End directorial debut. His production is finely judged and he gets very good performances from the young cast. The set helps the feeling that we are in a large building but are also enclosed, oppressed. The dark wood panelling with high up latticed windows slides forward between scenes to give a glimpse of a boy walking along a corridor, out of one door into another, often Wharton (William Green/Rowland Stirling) the fag, as he runs around with hot water and a tea tray. Inside the rooms there is the bare dormitory or the masculine library. The music too is evocative of schooldays, beautifully sung hymns or patriotic songs, the final hymn, "And thereís another country, Iíve heard of long ago Ö" providing the play with its title.
It is, thank heavens, a period piece although some of the practices remain in Englandís public schools. Beautifully presented it is a production worthy of the renovated Arts Theatre which has some interesting history of its own. It was here in the Arts Theatre Club that the youthful director Peter Hall put on the first ever production of Samuel Beckettís play Waiting for Godot.