A brief entrée into the rites and rituals of public school would confirm to most people that it is, indeed, Another Country.
It’s a strange world where another language is spoken and students who board can often feel alienated from the rest of society (just watching Sky’s documentary on Harrow confirms that little has changed over the centuries).
It was such a breeding ground that gave birth to British traitor and spy Guy Burgess and the rest of his cabal, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby. If they didn’t first harbour thoughts of betrayal at public school then they were certainly set in their minds by the time they reached Cambridge.
Julian Mitchell’s play Another Country, which opened on Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva stage last night, focuses on a public school, possibly Eton or Winchester, in the 1930s, where boys formulated personalities and ideals that would last them a lifetime.
Mitchell’s protagonist is a firebrand revolutionary called Tommy Judd who admits he is an out-and-out Communist. He reads Das Kapital and is intent on a Cambridge scholarship from where he intends to fight for social reform.
His best pal is the overtly gay Guy Bennett, a character loosely based on Burgess, who enjoys illicit midnight trysts with fellow pupils. He’s not interested in social inequality or anything else – until he realises that his sexuality makes him as much an outsider as Judd and, therefore, unlikely to fulfil his ambitions in the Foreign Office.
The stage is pretty well dominated by a storming performance by Will Attenborough (gosh, he’s inherited the looks and talent of his grandad, Sir Richard) as the outspoken Judd and the superb Rob Callender as Bennett (both names to watch for the future). Both “boys” are charismatic and engaging. Judd is fuelled by a political fervour and the dreamy eyed Bennett by the stirrings of his sexuality.
The catalyst for Bennett’s epiphany is the suicide of a pupil who had been caught in flagrante with another boy. The tragedy affects the students in different ways but mainly there’s a desire to cover up both the death and the fact that rampant homosexuality exists, almost like a rite of passage, in the well-respected single sex public school.
The drama begins and ends with the lads singing (very beautifully) I Vow To Thee My Country which is, of course, something two of them fail spectacularly to do.
Judd has always had principles but Bennett, angry that his sexuality is very much illegal in the ‘30s, petulantly declares: “You know, I think I will be a spy when I grow up. I’d make a very good spy actually.”
There are some great characters among the other pupils, clichés one and all, but their parts are left at the back of the class. Bill Milner (Son Of Rambow) plays the anxious and indecisive fag, Wharton, and spends his time on stage skivvying for others; Oliver Johnstone is the sadistic and ambitious Fowler who can’t wait to cane Bennett; while Orlando James, as head of house, Barclay, puts up a good show of decency as he fights with his conscience.
Also among the cast is local actor Cai Brigden, from near Great Horwood and a former student at Buckingham’s Royal Latin School, who has a small but incisive role as senior prefect Delahay, a former conquest of Bennett’s and responsible for exacting revenge on the boy’s attempts at blackmail by actually delivering the vicious thrashing.
The others pale into the background as the story concentrates on Judd and Bennett.
Julian Wadham has a telling cameo as a writer and pacifist, the uncle of a pupil, who pays a visit and openly mocks Judd’s high ideals while discreetly coming on to Bennett. He’s the only adult in a class of exceptionally talented “young boys”.
Another Country is familiar territory, even to public school pupils of today, but it is a snap shot of an unimaginable lifestyle for the likes of many commoners.
The years cloistered in an institution far away from home, love and family, rigidly obeying a set of archaic rules, shape the children into what they become in future years. Some may go on to be Tory “posh boys” and rule the country and capital while others, more damaged, vow to do it only harm.
Another Country runs until October 19. For tickets and information contact the box office 01243 781312 or visit www.cft.org.uk