LOVE AND THE TRAITORS: A 1930 WORLD
There will be voices which hail this revival of Julian Mitchell’s magnificent imagining of the 1930‘s schooldays which bred the Cambridge spies – Burgess, Philby, McLean and Blunt – as yet another opportunity to decry public-schools and establishment toffs, and point fingers quivering with largely irrelevant rage at the present Cabinet. Others, more mildly, will note its importance in the fight for gay acceptance and equality (it is an ‘80s play, and became a groundbreaking film with Rupert Everett in the harsh Section 28 years).
And it certainly does chime powerfully – and now rather joyfully – with the era of gay marriage and equality, as well as saying a lot about a particular clenched , stiff-lipped public school ethos of the “low dishonest decade” still traumatized by the 1914/18 war (another centennial reflection there) as it rolled towards another one. But it would be a pity to nod it through either as a single-issue play or a period piece. Jeremy Herrin’s fine production lets its many layers and subtleties of character breathe into vivid, complex life.
This production was conceived at Bath and ran at Chichester’s small Minerva last year: yet in this towering cavernous space it somehow maintains a fly-on-the wall intimacy in Peter McKintosh’s elegantly battered school common-rooms, dormitories and cricket pitch. And the young cast, convincing senior-school prefects and rebels, negotiate its verbal acrobatics and adolescent character confusions beautifully. At Chichester I picked out a brilliant performance by Rob Callender as Bennett, the graceful, languid, mischievous maverick who comes to realize that for him – unlike many of his partners in experimentation – homosexuality is real. Falling in love properly with another boy is not only a joy but a “life sentence” of social exclusion: all the more vivid because he is one of those who sees “Life as a ladder” and looks forward to a lush diplomatic career. Which he won’t get.
Bennett is still brilliant, but this time I took in also a strong, clever, nuanced performance by Will Attenborough as the school Communist Judd, some remarkable subtleties from the various prefects and aspirants to the “22” elite, and the fact that Bill Milner as the poor put-upon fag moves with effortless truth between childlike pathos and comic absurdity. I wondered in the opening scenes whether the play – the schoolboy slang, the chatter about the “House Man” and arcane prefectorial politics might be too baffling for a new generation: 1930’s schoolboys are, after all, as distant as the dinosaurs. But the skill of it is in drawing us so close, claustrophobically, into their world so that audience laughter or applause at the interval feels like an intrusion. Even from seats far up.
The interplay between the boys throws up political echoes from every era: not least in odd grace-notes like the moment Judd the Communist consoles the weeping Junior after a school suicide, offering the comfort of political anger: stay furious at the system and you can bear life’s blows better. Mitchell’s wit bites hard both on left and right; Bennett, with his gift for boyish parody, gets the funniest lines but Julian Wadham is wonderful as the visiting Bloomsburyite, all Swinburne and rosy sensuality. And just as you think you are only in a play of ideas and talk, the final emotional hit of Bennett’s “I”ll haunt the whole lot of them” jerks you into history. Terrific.
box office 0844 8717632 / http://www.atgtickets.com to 21 June