Julian Mitchell’s inspiration for his 1981 play Another Country came from the exposure in 1979 of rich, public school educated, and even knighted, Sir Anthony Blunt as having been a Soviet spy. Known as the ‘Cambridge Five’, Blunt and his fellow spies were respected members of high society, and Mitchell’s play speculates as to what caused these esteemed men to turn their backs on their country and spy for another. Set in an elite boarding school during the 1930s, Another Country attempts to show how the regimen, close-mindedness and even cruelty of the school could lead to its pupils becoming traitors. However, whilst this would certainly be an interesting set-up to a play, it is not really set-up at all, and this connection between the Cambridge spies and the drab school setting is only made right at the very end, which leaves only the all-male boarding school setting and drawn out dialogue, which seems to have been covered so often in the theatre that it all feels rather familiar.
Will Attenborough and Rob Callender as the two protagonists Judd and Bennett do a fantastic job of lifting the play out of its rather mellow setting. Judd is a serious and unrelenting Marxist who refuses to be a part of the school’s elitist hierarchies, and Attenborough’s portrayal of him is grounded and truthful, making what could become a rather austere character instead seem a sympathetic and quiet hero. Callender is the highlight of the show as the wonderfully camp and extravagant Bennett, whose playful humour and disregard for the rules and expected etiquette brings some much needed comic relief, but also hides his deep feelings of isolation and longing which burst out into the open in his touching realisation at the end of the play. Bennett and Judd’s final scene, in which we finally understand the possible reasons behind these future spies’ betrayal of their country, is poignant and truly moving, but one is left wishing that the play had more moments with this level of emotion and honesty, rather than the preceding swathes of mundane talk about the school and its backwards practices.
The undercurrent themes of socialism and homosexuality are surprisingly relevant for a play set in the 1930s. Judd despairs at the vast 3 million people unemployed, but as Julian Mitchell mentions in his programme notes, that is not far off the 2.5 million Brits who are unemployed today. A particularly awkward laugh comes at Judd’s assurance that “In Russia there is complete sexual freedom”, and the play certainly makes one ponder about the cyclic nature of the problems in our society, to the point that one cannot help sympathising with the boys’ wish for another country, however unattainable that may be.
Another Country is playing at Richmond Theatre until 19 July. For more information and tickets, see the ATG website. Photo by Johan Persson.