Compelling as Jeremy Herrin’s revival of Julian Mitchell’s play – first performed in 1981 and based on the life of Cambridge spy Guy Burgess – is, it’s somewhat depressing that, 80 years after the events it portrays took place, it still feels incredibly relevant. While the judicial sanctions for homosexuality may have been removed only the most foolishly optimistic would assert that prejudice has been eliminated, and the class distinctions on display are still much in evidence today, when the luckless poor are demonised as ‘scroungers’ and Bullingdon boys share the trappings of power amongst their public school friends.
It is power, rather than sex, at the heart of the piece. While Guy Bennett’s (the Burgess stand-in) sexuality – and his disillusionment at the hypocrisy it provokes – is the driving force for his defection, the play is less interested in his personal motives than it is in the culture that cultivates them. An educational establishment that forces people to lie about a core part of their being (and in fact rewards those most skilled at deception) is half making them spies already, but individual transgressions are less significant than the fact that the system is set up to overlook them as far as it possibly can.
In an era where the newspapers regale us daily with tales of establishment cover ups over everything from banking to Hillsborough to sexual abuse, examining such structures feels more necessary than ever. The message the rich seem to be taught is ‘do what you want, but do it with discretion’, and in return the authorities will turn a blind eye to anything that doesn’t upset the status quo. It’s telling that part of the blame for the suicide that precipitates the action falls not on the desperate young man’s disgraced partner in crime, but on the arriviste prefect who is so indiscreet as to discover their liaison. If he were an ‘old boy’, we are told, he would have known better than to investigate where there is even the possibility of uncovering wrongdoing – and so the social order would remain unruffled, whatever is going on beneath the surface. What you do means nothing: it’s what you’re caught doing, and scandal only counts when it threatens to reach the ears of ‘the people who matter’.
The school is a microcosm for a class that fears change because change might diminish their power. It’s clear that bullies like Fowler (a ferociously unpleasant Rowan Polonski) enjoy humiliating those weaker than they are, but even those who suffer at his hands don’t want to upset the system that put them in the posh school in the first place. Whatever viciousness and humiliation they face, they know that one day they will be in the position to call the shots themselves.
These prospects make even the most victimised complicit in their own oppression: the snivelling Wharton (Bill Milner) tolerates his fagdom secure in the knowledge that someone of his background will get his turn at the whip hand, and soon enough another boy will be snivelling in his place. For all his professed disillusionment – and the fact that he has suffered beatings at the hands of bullies – Devenish (a suitably buttoned up Mark Donald) is easily bought off with the promise of membership of the elite ‘Twenty Two’, so he can follow in the family footsteps. Charming, funny and the right amount of sly, Rob Callender is a delight as Bennett, so when he is broken we cannot help but sympathise, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that he sees the system as something to be played, rather than dismantled, until it fails him personally.
As his best friend and verbal sparring partner Judd, Will Attenborough does well in the more thankless role. His proselytizing can make appear him dull in comparison with Bennett’s scathing wit, but it’s leavened with dry humour, and the scene when he comforts the homesick Wharton shows an innate kindness and warmth that his schooling seems designed to discourage.
In retrospect, it’s easy to mock the political naiveté of someone singing the benefits of Stalinism, but Judd’s real crime is that despite his idealism and rapture about ‘the revolution’ he lacks the imagination to truly see that things could be different. He hangs on at school to get a scholarship that will keep him at the heart of the establishment and, for all his talk of equality, he is quick to dismiss Bennett’s statement of sexuality, having bought wholesale into the same doctrine of those he purports to despise: that it’s an acceptable, even expected, phase at school, but a disgraceful and deviant adult life, and Bennett’s declaration is simply that of a spoilt, immature boy lashing out.
The extremism of his views means that the only alternative we are presented with is one we already know has failed, and which simply results in a different kind of equality. The depressing conclusion is that after decades of social change, the structures of power remain immutable and unassailable and, looking at our current rulers, it’s hard to argue otherwise.