At only ten years old, The History Boys already holds an iconic place in British drama. Why?
I think it’s because it’s just such a brilliantly written play, and that’s what has secured its place in the British canon. When it won the Olivier, I think that was almost purely on the basis of the quality of the writing. Of course, Nick Hytner did loads of great stuff with the original NT production, but in reading reviews and opinions of that production it’s the writing that comes up time and again. I think that’s partly our reason for doing it now, because we feel that the play, in its cemented position in the canon, is just slightly getting misread.
Has the accolade of “Nation’s Favourite Play” complicated putting it onstage?
Yes it certainly has, it’s got such a fixed place in everyones memory. Maybe the easiest way to realise that is to look at how we think about the characters – when we think of Hector, we think of Richard Griffiths, especially if you’re coming to the play for the first time, having only seen the film or the NT version. But in a way, we like the way that it gives us a position where we can come with a fresh approach. It’s definitely something we’re doing, not quite as a reaction to previous productions, but as a way of re-imagining and trying to reshape the play on so many different levels.
So, the fact that it is apparently “the nation’s favourite” does makes things a little bit more difficult but ultimately, I think it’s been really useful as a touchstone for us in the way we’ve gone about rehearsals so far.
At times, The History Boys is screamingly funny – but it also tries to deal with some fairly heavy themes. How have you balanced these elements?
The play lends itself to quick changes in tone by flowing from scene to scene so easily – but that’s been a huge challenge as well, getting the pace right. If you read the script there’s no stage directions to help you manage your scene changes or anything like that. And that means that you can go from doing the famous hilarious French scene, to two pages later – which can be less than two minutes – then you’ve got a scene with Hector breaking down in front of people. The best way to go about achieving that is to be focused on the pace of the play. That’s been our focus – if we get the pace right, we’ll get the balance of the more emotional side of the play with the more humorous side.
Ten years on, the play remains topical and relevant to wider society and, of course, Oxford in particular. Has it raised difficult questions?
Yes, for sure – the issue is that it has, to some people, seemed a little self-serving for a bunch of Oxford undergraduates to stage a play about getting into Oxford. We just want to say that the play doesn’t idealise Oxford in any way. James Fennemore used the term “fetishizing Oxford”, but I disagree with that. I think it asks us to challenge why people hold Oxford up on a pedestal. Does the fact that Irwin lied about going to Oxford spoil our opinion of him? I don’t think so; I think we’re meant to realise that great people don’t necessarily come from Oxford or Cambridge. So it challenges that view more than anything else. Which, again, is a important thing for the undergraduates that are going to be watching the play, and the undergraduates that are in the play. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but I think it’s one that’s worth having.
The History Boys runs at the Oxford Playhouse fromWednesday-Saturday of 1st week. Tickets start at £11