Tag Archives: David Hare
Reviewed by Megan Murray-Pepper.
‘Two acts of kindness, one great night of theatre’. So runs the strapline for this remarkable double bill which combines Terence Rattigan’s classic short tragedy The Browning Version (1948) with David Hare’s new play South Downs (2011) in a two-handed reflection on life in English public schools. I’m inclined to concur, with the reservation that the first half of that assertion can’t possibly do justice to the splintered nuances of institutional discomfort, intellectual hunger, and fragile human connection that play across the two pieces. They are unquestionably, however, ‘a great night of theatre’, particularly Rattigan’s masterful and exquisitely painful study of a disappointed teacher’s emotional stagnation.
This production sold out at the 2011 Chichester Festival and has now transferred to London’s Harold Pinter Theatre for a well-deserved extended run (get there before 21st July). It’s part of Rattigan’s recent resurgence, as seen in last year’s film of The Deep Blue Sea and the West End production of Flare Path (at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket).
With the approach of Rattigan’s centenary last year David Hare was invited by his Estate to write the companion piece that became South Downs. Where The Browning Version focuses on masters, Hare puts students at the centre in a play inspired by his own schooling at Lancing College in the 1960s. In Jeremy Herrin’s production, bursary pupil John Blakemore (a touching Alex Lawther) grapples with social unease and an isolating intellectual curiousity. In a wonderful English lesson, he sticks up valiantly for his only friend Jenkins in the face of pompous Basil Spear (inevitably ‘Queer’ to the boys), who is determined to teach them that Alexander Pope “frees us from the burden of originality”. Though Blakemore’s precocious questioning is at odds with both pedagogy and pupils, it bespeaks the ‘underlying sense of possibility’ that Hare perceived in the education system of half a century ago. Blakemore’s hero, the prefect Jeremy Duffield, presents a series of motions for school debate – nuclear disarmament, disestablishment of church and monarchy – which reveal the scope for political intervention and engagement that students might expect to follow their school career.
Amid the desperate lonelinesses that are fostered and occasionally anaesthetised by the rituals of the institution, it is Duffield’s mother Belinda – a rather racy actress played easily by Anna Chancellor – who offers Blakemore a vital morsel of both fruit cake and compassion. Her symbolic invitation to tea and a private chat (the ‘act of kindness’ on which the play turns) is a perception-changing moment through which the bewildered schoolboy accepts the rightness of being himself. (“What’s your religion,” asks Duffield afterwards, “– my mother?”). The touching contours of Blakemore’s tentative epiphany lay the emotional groundwork for the darker piece that follows the interval.
The Browning Version, directed by Angus Jackson, takes us back to Harrow in the 1920s. Rattigan’s concisely devastating play revolves around the departing Classics Master Andrew Crocker-Harris (in a brilliant performance by Nicholas Farrell), ridiculed by his boys for pedantic Greek puns and despised by his wife Millie (Anna Chancellor) for not being successful enough (and for not being the handsome science master Frank Hunter). Over the course of a single afternoon the tightly knotted threads of endurance that make up Crocker-Harris’ dry demeanour are unravelled.
The cast exquisitely capture not only the oddities of rigorous school life but the petty cruelties of the authoritarian and the unhappy. The languid ease of Frank Hunter (Mark Umbers) gives way to a smouldering integrity, while Anna Chancellor’s Millie is a beguilingly despicable cocktail of need and insensitivity. Farrell himself is riveting. Indignities from the obnoxious Headmaster (Andrew Woodall) and infidelities from his wife can be withstood; instead it is the thoughtful parting gift of a pupil anxious to secure his ‘Remove’ that breaks Crocker-Harris. Taplow’s (Liam Morton) presentation of the ‘Browning Version’ of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is the impulsive moment of kindness which unleashes the crumbling of the emotional dam.
This is a deeply enthralling and at times agonising production; disappointments seep through the cracks in ordinary lives groping for different forms of approval. Even more harrowing than the breakdown is Crocker-Harris’ steely reassembly of his dried-up stoicism. The Agamemnon, less plot device than subtly resonant intertext, keeps inexorable prophecies and the murderous antipathy of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra lurking in the wings. But Rattigan’s tragedy lies in the smallest and hardly dramatic details, such as the revelation by his replacement that Crocker-Harris is considered ‘The Himmler of the Fifth Form’. The cracks already appearing in the marriage of the fresh-faced Gilberts inheriting the Crocker-Harris domain bode ill.
Rattigan’s play is wonderfully written, and in this production it is more than great theatre: it is profoundly moving theatre that can shake you right to the core.
South Downs/The Browning Version runs until 21st July at the Harold Pinter Theatre.