Of late I’ve been privy to a number of tight, succinct one-hour performances, which have shown how much can be said, expressed and achieved in 60 minutes. It’s led me to ponder the rather more traditional dimensions of the play, typically running a couple of hours or more. Often, there is repetition of ideas excused on the basis of underscoring, I suppose. And, I reckon, some plays are as long as they are simply because the playwright is so enamoured with the sound of his own voice, he (it usually is) doesn’t know when to stop.
Alan Bennett’s The History Boys talks a lot about what he knows: history. His specialty, when still an academic, might’ve been medieval history, but his thesis placing the historian as the key stimulus for historical debate, a provocateur and devil’s advocate, is roundly and vigorously propagated here. Some might say self-indulgently (mind you, it’s his play, so can’t he say and do what he likes?). It’s an interesting subject. I’m just not sure this is the best vehicle for its exposition. Still, who am I to whinge? The fact is The History Boys won six (yes, six) Tonies, following its Broadway debut on April 23, 2006, at the Broadhurst Theatre, where it enjoyed no less than 185 performances, enough to see it made into a film with the same director, in Nicholas Hytner. And the awards went way beyond Tonies.
The preoccupation of the play’s characters, though, is getting into Oxbridge. Also something Bennett knows plenty about, since he’s an Oxford alumnus. Both teachers (all with their own, passionate convictions about education) and students (a privileged, intellectual elite, studying at a fictional Sheffield grammar school) are consumed by what they see as a virtual necessity. The students’ other preoccupation (and not much less so the teachers’), being adolescent boys, is sex.
Though the temporal setting is ambiguous, there is something more than a little old-school (save for liberal coarse language and tolerated audacity) about the relationships between teachers and students, all the way down to veiled and clandestine encounters of the homosexual kind. One has a nagging suspicion that, perhaps, certain of the teachers in the play are real: that is, that Bennett has written them after teachers he’s had (though not necessarily in the biblical sense).
Dorothy is the frustrated (largely stifled and unheard, at Cutlers Grammar) feminist voice of the play, played here, rather uncertainly, by Claudette Clark. She’s a little too actorly and stumbles quite often, as does Headmaster, Tim Hunter, who’s effectual as a dithery, old fart prone to random expletives, but not always intelligible.
Even Phillip Lye’s Hector, who has an approximate equivalence with Professor John Keating, of Dead Poets’ Society is, at the beginning of the play, barely audible towards the back of the Parade Playhouse, despite warming, eventually, to achieve almost Burtonesque cut-through. With his tousled hair, pot belly and crumpled linen suit, he is quite convincing as the sad, dishevelled, middle-aged man in existential crisis, suspecting his whole life to be a misspent lie.
He has, for example, a wife, but his predilection is for young boys who, in the true spirit of the classic ‘dirty, old man’, he fondles, some how, while they ride pillion on his Trumpy (so to speak). This, or at least the image, might be distasteful, but the true tragedy is the way he seeks to dismiss and enoble his actions, which he describes as a kind of benediction. His observation seems to fall uncomfortably in a psychic no-man’s-land, indeterminably located somewhere between self-awareness, denial and delusion.
Young Irwin (Morgan Derera) proves to be his nemesis, in more ways than one. Firstly, he is implausibly fresh-faced; which is why the ‘enemy of culture’, the head, repeatedly advises him to grow a moustache. Secondly, his gradually revealed latency makes him a rival for the focus of affections of Hector’s favourite boys. And thirdly, his educational philosophy is formed and apparently functional, as opposed to Hector’s more nebulous style: “It’s not that he doesn’t produce results,” confesses the head, “he does; but they’re unpredictable and unquantifiable and, in the current educational climate, that’s not use.” Yes, there’s loud-and-clear resonance with the league-table-oriented policy of the Gillard government, which gives this play all the more impetus.
The diminutive Derera, too, is well-cast, the conservatism of his straight-laced character’s collar-and-tie and sleeveless pullover masking a radical streak, perhaps teetering on reckless.
But the real stars of this production are the boys, who I take to be, one-and-all, current students of St Ignatius College, Riverview. I also take it they must be engaged in some form of theatrical studies as, in some cases, they could teach one or two of their adult counterparts something about diction and projection.
All seem to be competent, charismatic and well on their way to becoming fine, accomplished actors, if they so choose (although they might be looking to Oxbridge academia). Standouts include Stephen Lloyd-Coombs, as rugger prodigy Rudge (although, curiously and incongruously, he was the only one to opt for a partial English accent); Ben Williams, as the narcissistic, sexually-ambivalent (he cruelly revels, with calculated disinterest, in Posner’s and Irwin’s adoration, while doing the principal’s secretary and boasting of the conquest) smartarse, Dakin; and Constantine Costi, as Posner (“I’m homosexual; I’m small; I’m a Jew; I’m from Sheffield; I’m fucked!”).
Suzanne Millar has done a good job, as director; though there’s room to improve sound design, for this space, since the chatter of students often obscures the dialogue of teachers, as do prolonged fades of well-chosen songs. Lighting design and operation (John Harrison; Jarryd Minton) is particularly noteworthy for slick expertise. Millar’s set design is okay: a clutter of odds ‘n’ ends, desks and chairs; a highlight being the magnificent British bike, which parades around, blasting out its irresistible, throaty burble; a metaphor, at once, for intimidating authority, danger, radicalism and throbbing sexuality.
The play runs way over its scheduled duration, more in line with the National Theatre’s three-hour production. At that length, it goes on a little too long, for mine, notwithstanding the critical genuflection it’s received previously and elsewhere. Much of this time is taken up with what would seem to be Bennett’s inability to resist quoting just one more epithet, or making just one more impressive, name-dropping reference: be it from Nietzsche, Wittgenstein (a clear favourite),
Intelligent, insightful and stretching a broad canvas for debates on educational philosophy, the meaning of life, sexual mores, honesty, pretension, history and poetry. History might well be just “one fucking thing after another”, as Bennett posits, via Rudge, paraphrasing a Cambridge prof from the 40s. Perhaps that’s why we need the ‘insulation for the mind’ poetry provides. But while this play reinvigorates these debates and generates a little friction, I’m not sure it leaves us with any lessons, buoyancy, or determination, to engage with the subjects in any really new or profitable ways.
You could spend a few dollars, a wet evening and a few hours in downtown Kensington instead of succumbing to brain-numbing television or internet porn. Or have Dead Poets’ Society home-delivered, to be washed down with a lively pinot noir, with a light chill on it. Surely that’s pretension enough for one evening. That way, too, you can spare yourself the voluble recognitions, murmurs and mutterings of unofficial representatives of the would-be literati and chattering classes all about you.
The transmission of knowledge might be an erotic act, but The History Boys leaves me a little less than aroused.
Curtain Call rating: B-
The details: The History Boys plays the Parade Playhouse, Parade Theatres, NIDA, until Saturday, December 4. Tickets through Ticktek.