Warning: the play contains allusions to sexual assault and glorification of the perpetrator of sexual assault. Some audience members may find these themes distressing.
Everyman Theatre’s The History Boys is an enthralling theatrical experience. Staged in the round, the audience is immersed in the activity of a 1980s boy’s grammar school as a group of university hopefuls prepare themselves for the gruelling Oxbridge entrance exams. The staging is a study in exemplary set design: the classroom is basic yet detailed down to gum on the desks, serving as the perfect vehicle for the production’s excellent choreography. Every aspect of the performance is tight and precise while still facilitating the naturalism that the space inspires.
Phenomenal energy from its eponymous boys carries this production. Directors Christopher Zuber and Jarrad West have assembled a superb young cast, whose accent work and sheer enthusiasm create a mesmerising performance. The eight work in cohesion while each retains a unique identity, supported by infectious musical numbers as part of the classroom banter. Patrick Galen-Mules is a stand out as Scripps, demonstrating his versatility as a musician and an actor.
The charisma of the group provides a strong platform for the older cast members. Hayden Splitt offers a vivid portrait of the stilted young teacher determined to shine. Geoffrey Borny excels as the ornery headmaster. The astoundingly accomplished Chris Baldock is magnetic as Douglas Hector, bouncing and exuberant as he performs to his students and only incidentally to the audience. It is truly excellent naturalist theatre.
While the production is captivating in its performance, this only heightens the disturbing undertones rife throughout Alan Bennett’s award winning script. Two themes dominate this play. The first explores the effects of a frustratingly repressive boys school on male conceptions of sexuality. The second is a philosophical musing on the platonic act of teaching. These separate conversations coalesce into a darker thesis on the eroticism of classroom interactions: the teacher giving, the student receiving, the doors locked on this sanctum of Aristotelian virtue.
Bennett wants his play to inspire this intellectual interpretation. He wants his audience to leave pondering over the act of learning, over the nature of truth and relativism, over the formative effects of our education system.
He does this by glorifying the perpetrator of sexual assault. He presents an environment of paedophilic grooming that is willfully engaged in by smart, confident teenagers and their jovial idol. The boys, in their bravado, are blasé about this interaction. ‘Are we scarred for life, do you think?’asks the wildly charismatic Dakin. ‘We must hope so,’ Scripps dryly replies, ‘perhaps it will turn me into Proust.’ Bennett’s flippant treatment of this behaviour is disturbing and minimises the implications of an incredibly traumatising act.
His treatment of women is similarly marginalising. Alice Ferguson shines as the world-weary Dorothy Lintott, a satiric figure who appears on stage only to sardonically point out her lack of importance. In a fiery breakout monologue against the patriarchal interpretation and perpetuation of history, her anger is that of an exasperated housewife. She fumes about having to teach ‘five centuries of masculine ineptitude’ and argues for the inclusion of the female presence in history, but only in the context of ‘cleaning up their messes.’
This points to the fundamental weakness infecting the play. Bennett attempts to frame these issues in a self-conscious, ironic light that reflects the relativist propositions put forward by his characters. For example, he at once romanticises the place of literature in informing the human experience while also cynically lambasting the person who places too much importance on the sanctity of words. But the play reaches too far in applying this bifocal lens to gender inequality and, distressingly, sexual assault. Bennett moves from postmodernism into defending sexual exploitation.
The History Boys is a masterfully staged production. The performance is a mesmerising blaze of superb acting and flawless choreography, supported by excellent tech work and amazing musical asides. However, it portrays confronting themes in a highly troublesome manner. I left the theatre with mixed feelings – no matter how great the production, it is difficult to divorce the performance from its distressing content.