The Oxford Playhouse is soon to be transformed into an English public school, very much resembling Eton College in the 1930s, only a few years before the outbreak of World War Two. This is thanks to a decision by producer Edwina Christie and director Jessica Lazar to stage Julian Mitchell’s gem Another Country, the play that spawned the film of the same name and launched the stage and film careers of Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis. The story is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the infamous Cambridge Spies during the Cold War who informed on Britain to Russia, focusing on his time in school and the struggles stemming from his open homosexuality and his exposure to Marxism. Mitchell follows nine boys, including Guy Bennett (as Burgess is called in the play) and his close friend, Harry Judd, through a summer term when the school is devastated by the suicide of a student, an event which compels the boys to confront themselves and their beliefs head on. This in turn will influence the future of England as the boys make choices which will affect the rest of their lives.
Another Country was last performed at the Oxford Playhouse ten years ago and a revival was more than due; from seeing only the first two scenes, it is obvious why this play heralded the careers of so many now well established actors – it is very much an actor’s play.
It opens in the library of Gascoigne House with Guy, Harry and another student engaging in a battle of wits over a number of subjects, which allow the actors free reign to play with the rapid exchanges of dialogue and to work off one another. Peter Huhne and Jo Allan in the respective roles of Bennett and Judd perform extremely well together, drawing the full force of the humour (at times, macabre, whilst at others, simply juvenile) from the quick fire discourse, whilst always remaining clear and comprehensible.
When the end of the first scene shifts into disbelief and tragedy, the actors simply change key, revealing a vulnerability underneath their previous swagger that is both believable and heart-breaking to watch. Into the second scene, the more minor characters of the first come to the forefront to try and make sense of what has just happened. The strength of this play lies in the skills of the ensemble, all working at the same high level; there is no weak link in this cast and none can be especially singled out.
Whilst what I have seen is only the beginning of the story, which meant that for me it very much feels like a play of two parts – with the opening scenes in the school and the later tantalising promise of the story of Guy Burgess’s betrayal – I am very much looking forward to seeing how they fit together and how the boys deal with the fall out of their school’s tragedy. The story is fascinating, the dialogue is vibrant, and the cast are fantastic. Go and see this under-performed play, or you may have to wait another ten years!
Another Country will run in the Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday the 13th February to Saturday the 16th of February. Tickets available for £15.50 / £12.50 / £10.50.
PHOTO/ Alexandra Talbott