JULIAN Mitchell’s play Another Country, on at Bath Theatre Royal this week in an atmospheric production directed by Jeremy Herrin, is set in an English public school in the 1930s.
This was a time when inter-pupil fiddling was commonplace and accepted as a rite of the normal passage towards heterosexuality.
But if the love that dared not speak its name threatened, the wrath of parents, masters and prigs thundered into power, quickly followed by denials, expulsions and worse.
How different things are now, with the younger generations finding it difficult to understand what all the fuss surrounding questions of same-sex marriage can be about. That tolerance – or disinterest – came a long time after the 1964 Bill that decriminalised same sex acts between consenting adults, which predated Mitchell’s play by three decades.
As the play starts, Guy Bennett, a promiscuous romantic whose back catalogue includes many of the prefects and senior boys at school, has fallen in love with a boy from another house. Watching from the library window to catch a glimpse of him, he sees a body being carried out of the clock tower across the quadrangle.
The constant resident of the library is Bennett’s friend Judd, the school’s only Marxist, who spends every spare minute reading Das Kapital and other Communist or Russian diatribes.
As Bennett (loosely based on Guy Burgess, one of the notorious Cambridge Five, the Soviet spy ring that also included Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby) discovers the limits to which his “friends” will support him, and how they will throw him to the wolves to protect their own skins, his ears open wider to the beliefs that Judd passionately espouses.
We know the outcome.
This brilliantly funny, incisive and thought- provoking play is at Bath before its month at the Minerva in Chichester, in a combined production by Bath Theatre Royal, Chichester Festival Theatre and Fiery Angel.
Judd is played with intense conviction by Will Attenborough, son of director Michael and grandson of Richard – and doing the dynasty proud.
Rob Callender has the perfect balance of loucheness, excitement and romantic assurance that Bennett needs.
And there is a telling cameo from Julian Wadham as the visiting speaker whose own suede shoes credentials are no secret from the staff or boys.
The fine acting of the rest of the cast encapsulates the oppressive atmosphere and exclusivity of the school, and the assumptions of high flying careers in the following years.
It’s on until Saturday.