Another Country, currently playing at Trafalgar Studios, echoes with L. P. Hartley’s claim that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” in its examination of British public school life in the 1930s. Written shortly after Anthony Blunt was ousted as a Soviet spy in 1979, the play examines what may have provoked well-educated young men such as he to turn against their country, suggesting that the roots for such betrayal might have lain in their early school experiences.
Indeed, this context may lead the subject matter of Another Country to sound somewhat foreign, but it is in director Jeremy Herrin’s production – a transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre – that Julian Mitchell’s script proves that Hartley’s claim does not entirely hold water. Indeed, playwright Mitchell’s examination of this microcosm not only feels relevant, but incredibly familiar. Another Country is a play of power politics, hierarchy, blackmail and betrayal, and the characterisation rings undeniably true with the Oxbridge-educated figures who dominate the political sphere today: if anything, the play suggests that times may have changed, but the elite who remain in power have not.
Peter McKintosh’s claustrophobic design, marked by wood panelling and austere shapes and colours, cleverly underpins the strict and oppressive world of the unnamed public school setting of Another Country. Indeed, the play itself is like a pressure-cooker, its events precipitated by the discovery of a boy having committed suicide after being discovered partaking in a homosexual act by a teacher. The worst irony is not the students’ dismay at his having been involved in such a relationship, but that he let himself get caught, and what follows is a dense and witty drama that uncovers the unspoken rules and codes of public school life, and the chaos that ensues when these are broken.
Through the prism of its fascinating, funny and highly idiosyncratic characters – from the idealistic would-be communist Judd (Will Attenborough) to serial flirt Bennett (Rob Callender) – the play really digs deep into the psyche of these young men and each of their own battles with their private and public personas. The acting from the ensemble is exemplary, expertly evoking the reality of the world of the play, as well as the psyche of each student, in the most minute detail. The piece is all the more enthralling for our investment in how the predicament of each character might resolve itself. Julian Wadham, who played Barclay in the original production, gives a fine performance as Vaughan Cunningham, the only adult whom we see penetrate the boys’ world. He brings great life and vivacity where often it is the students offering gravitas and cause for deeper reflection.
With such strong performances and such a well-drawn world that strikes a chord with our own, Another Country both transports audiences to another time and holds a mirror up to our own, making it a piece well worth seeing for a witty, cutting and engaging night at the theatre.
Another Country is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 21 June. For more information and tickets, see the ATG website.
Photo by Johan Persson.