Mitchell's brutal lesson in how to produce traitors
Julian Mitchell's 1981 play opens with a row of public schoolboys singing, "I Vow To Thee, My Country," for this is all about patriotism and loyalty – and what turns schoolboys into traitors.
The school is probably Sixties Eton, with its arcane traditions, its caning and fagging, and bullying by the elite prefects and 22 club who wear tailcoats. Put adolescent, impressionable and emotional boys into this sheltered hothouse and what happens? Maybe here are the roots of defection later on by Burgess and McLean, Philby and Blunt.
The action centres on two boys: Bennett, whose gay adventures are covered up by his friends, until the system catches up with him, and he is flogged; and Judd, the committed communist who grinds his teeth and gets on with what he regards as a prison sentence. The production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, emphasises the brutality of the place, the constant noise, the barked commands, the summons by bells, all set in a claustrophobic panelled room which doubles as study, library and dormitory, where new boys cry for their mothers and then learn to be tough and hide their feelings.
Is it any wonder, argues Mitchell, that in this environment, the misfits want revenge and feel the best way to get it is to betray your country? At public schools like this, the despised "commies and queers" learn how to dissemble, how to go to ground, how to sabotage the system. This is a long densely argued, slightly repetitious play that perhaps could do with some pruning, but it certainly gets the message over to a later age when, mercifully, public schools are now less brutal places to grow up in.
Casting an all-male cast of grown men to play schoolboys is a risky undertaking, but these ten actors are totally convincing, especially Rob Callender, as the camp Bennett, and Will Attenborough, as the dogged non-conformist, and there's an itchingly nasty portrait of a bully by Oliver Johnstone.
The play, a co-production with Chichester Festival Theatre, runs until September 14.