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September 30, 2013 4:37 pm
The return of the public-school patrician stratum to British government has done nothing to rekindle the relevance of Julian Mitchell’s play. Even at the time of its early-1980s premiere, it seemed to draw attention less for its fictionalised consideration of why Guy Burgess became a Soviet spy (speculating that it might have been revenge for the institutionalised and hypocritical homophobia of his education) than for unearthing a succession of talented young actors: Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth.
A third of a century on from that opening, and 80 years after the events it imagines, the Cambridge spies are a historical topic rather than one from living memory or even current affairs (with the 1979 public unmasking of Anthony Blunt as the “fourth man”). The global ideological conflict the play touches on is effectively over, although a savage irony now attends the idea of oppressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain driving someone towards Russia.
The play’s treatment of public-school adolescent gay behaviour is now, as it were, a retro style even of retro; Roger Gellert’s 1950s drama Quaint Honour, all but unknown today, is the real thing that Mitchell’s play, however assiduously, is pastiching. And this strain almost drowns out the more profound themes of pragmatism versus principle, and how this school-era inculcation feeds in adulthood into the national machinery. The kind of principled stand shown here chiefly by schoolboy Marxist Tommy Judd, but also in his own way by Guy Bennett (the Burgess figure), is all too rare in the 21st-century British establishment.
Jeremy Herrin’s normally sure directorial touch fumbles this venture by misjudging the balance between “period” and camp. More than this, though, I suspect the reason for the excessive archness and constant artificiality of tone is that the register and content of Mitchell’s writing simply requires a lot of experience and/or unusual talent to pull off convincing delivery and characterisation. Those ’80s discoveries had the talent; these youngsters do not yet. Will Attenborough comes close as Judd, but Rob Callender never persuaded me that I was watching a secret, deep-down Guy Bennett revelling in the role of “Bennett” played for his schoolfellows, rather than Callender himself luxuriating in the stage role. Another country indeed, more than ever.
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