‘Another Country’ by Julian Mitchell at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester
17th October, 2013
‘The love that never falters
The love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted
The final sacrifice’
In 1980, months after Anthony Blunt’s exposure as the dubbed fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring, Julian Mitchell sat down to write Another Country and explore the possible origins of their national betrayal. As Mitchell writes: ‘People usually become traitors for one of three reasons: money, ideological conviction or revenge.’ He settles on revenge for the institutionalised and hypocritical homophobia. In our current climate, there is an irony in the idea of oppressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain driving someone towards Russia where homosexuality is portrayed as a danger to children and the family.
Set in an unnamed 1930s, public school, the investigation focuses on the young privileged elite such as Guy Burgess (Bennett in the play). Burgess was an Eton-educated Foreign Office official, who passed secrets to the Soviets before and during the Cold War as part of the Cambridge Five spy ring – eventually defecting to Moscow in 1951. The play’s revival is timely with the publication of ‘In Spies We Trust ‘By Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones. Here, class is paramount, rank reigns.
The haunting strain of Gustav Holst’s, ‘I vow to thee my Country’ from public school boys emerging chess-like onto the stage sets the tone for the rule-bound, grindingly masculine environment. The verse invites us to consider the theme of betrayal which is adeptly explored through an assumed allegiance to one’s country and personal identity; all the more significant, knowing that the lyrics were coined by Cecil Spring Rice, a British diplomat.
Rob Callender’s professional debut as the raffish Bennett is aptly indolent and wittily gay. Throughout the play, Bennett enjoys illicit midnight trysts with fellow pupils and relating them with louche confidence. There is one protracted account when Bennett gives an hilarious description of his father’s tragic coitus interruptus. Later, he envisions his own sad future as a homosexual in a climate when this sexuality is punishable by imprisonment. We are mindful of the double-speak attitude in the homoerotic world of public schools. Though homosexuality is officially secret and forbidden, it is rife; only rule that applies – don’t get caught! So if exposed, we know Bennett seems unlikely to fulfil his anticipated career in the Diplomatic Service. Yet the real life spy, Anthony Blunt remained the apogee of the British ruling class pole of privilege, despite being arrested as a Soviet double-agent during the war and after. Betraying your country to its key enemy for years was no impediment to professional advancement; not the slightest barrier to success, honours and acclaim. To the fair minded, it is shocking that Blunt was able to accept a knighthood in 1956, to take up the directorship of the Courtauld Institute and, ultimate of honours, had become Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.
Will Attenborough is superb as Tommy Judd,( loosely based on Communist, John Cornford, who died in the Spanish Civil War.) an idealist rejecting his privileged background to embrace Marxism and believing in the Communist collectivisation of labour. A bust of Lenin and ‘Das Kapital’ are never far from his side. There are some delightful cameo performances from Bill Milner as Wharton who remains cripplingly anxious to execute his ‘fag’ duties successfully; also Cai Brigden as disdainful Delahay; Oliver Johnstone as the autocratic prefect, Fowler; Orlando James as Barclay and Mark Donald Devenish whois forced to choose between his friends and his position – all add to the pubescent supporting roles. Such a feast of burgeoning talent! The sole adult, Julian Wadham as Bloomsbury writer, Vaughan Cunningham appears in the second Act as a fey conscientious objector. It’s a nice touch as Wadham was one of the boys in the original production.
Undercurrents of bigotry are brought into focus when a young pupil, Martineau, caught in a sexual act with one of his classmates is then shamed into hanging himself. 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. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. And there’s the rub: the necessity of hypocrisy in British ruling classes. The seamless change of set of wood-panelled rooms and Spartan dormitories, and cricket pitches serves to colour further the institutional regimen.
The lead role of Bennett has previously been played by Rupert Everett and Daniel Day Lewis, while the young Communist Judd was portrayed first by Kenneth Branagh and later by Colin Firth. It would be so right and fitting if the mantle passes to Will Attenborough and Rob Callender.
Hopefully, there is longevity in Jeremy Herrin’s production as the Establishment continues to reinvent ways of dealing with rebels.