In this superb double-bill, which shares a cast and has transferred to London following an acclaimed run in Chichester, order is everything. Not just to the characters at the two public schools that provide the setting but in terms of our appreciation of both plays.
It’s a brave writer who commits to writing a companion piece to the much-beloved The Browning Version. But David Hare’s beautifully understated South Downs holds its own and casts Terence Rattigan’s poignant study of a man’s decline in an even more melancholic light. Set in 1962, the play focuses on the rite of passage of John Blakemore, a student struggling to adapt to the rhythm of a rule-bound Anglo-Catholic school nestled in the South Downs, inspired by Hare’s experiences at Lancing College.
Blakemore’s difference isn’t, as the other boys suppose, because he’s “queer” – he’s not – but because he can’t leave things alone. Relentlessly inquisitive, he effortlessly outwits his masters and reacts with intellectual bewilderment to the fuzzy theology underpinning his imminent confirmation.
In Hare’s hands, Blakemore’s adolescent struggle reflects the growing pains of post-war Britain. This CND badge-wearing 14-year-old boy from a poor background, incessantly questioning everything, frightens the hell out of his ageing teachers. Here, private school is a microcosm of a society in which the old order is breaking down and blind faith in religion and tradition is no longer enough. The Sixties are about to swing and the school’s students are proposing debates on abolishing the monarchy and reforming the education system.
Jeremy Herrin’s stark production, with its sudden blackouts between scenes, evokes a world shifting painfully away from its past; intensifying the fractured feel of Hare’s spiky script, which ditches flowing narrative in favour of splintered vignettes full of faltering conversations and sharply delivered putdowns. This is a play about the studies and classrooms of the elite written with a twenty-first century sensibility.
Alex Lawther is excellent as the boy with the carefully cultivated posh accent who finds hard things easy and simple things difficult. He retains our sympathy on occasions when Blakemore could be insufferable, tempering his character’s querulous tone and compulsive precociousness with a dejected wistfulness. Blakemore’s frustrated grappling with the concept of transubstantiation – exactly how does one thing become something else entirely? – is a desire to fit in refracted through a crisis of faith.
Forbidding oak arches set against a bare black backdrop lend the stage an eerily sepulchral atmosphere, reflecting Blakemore’s sense of alienation and his school’s fading relevance as a symbol of a particular social order.
Nonetheless, there are rays of light in Blakemore’s life, including the very literal one that seems to beatify Anna Chancellor when she enters as Belinda Duffield. Like her son, prefect Jeremy (an effortlessly charismatic Jonathan Bailey), Belinda has huge empathy for Blakemore. An actress, she has made her peace with what he has still to learn – that sometimes we must accept that the world doesn’t make sense but act as though it does.
Blakemore has a lot in common with The Browning Version’s Andrew Crocker-Harris, who is similarly unable to connect with people. But if the boy is a portent of the future, Rattigan’s middle-aged classicist is about to be consigned to the dustbin of history. His wife’s affair with one of his colleagues – revealed in the opening scene – is yet another knock to a man who has already suffered the blow of having to retire early because of a heart attack.
Rattigan gives us a heartrending portrait of a perennially uncool teacher, mockingly imitated by pupils and regarded as an amusing relic by his peers. Where Hare’s dialogue jabs and stings, this play swells with the ache of things left unsaid. Director Angus Jackson foregrounds this, drawing out every pause to create unbridgeable gulfs between the characters.
Nicholas Farrell’s Crocker-Harris speaks with the careful slowness of a man who has retreated into the bespectacled caricature others have made of him and buried his heart in classical studies. It’s a performance of excruciatingly effective restraint. The catch in his voice and slight sag as he reads aloud a small token of seeming kindness – a student’s farewell inscription in an edition of Browning’s translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon – is sadder than any handwringing could be.
Aeschylus’s story is that of a man murdered by his wife. But if Anna Chancellor lights up the stage with warmth and honesty in South Downs, here she brings refreshing depth to the less sympathetic role of Millie Crocker-Harris, conveying the anguished frustration of a woman as trapped by her husband’s temperament and circumstances as he is. Their tragedy will have no bloody climax, but drift on through years of silent mealtimes and routine as pitiful consolation.
The only jarring note is Andrew Woodall’s turn as the school’s headmaster. The venom of his insistence as Basil Spear in South Downs that nothing after Alexander Pope counts as poetry makes sense: his character is fighting against a rising tide of social change. But the vindictive tone in which he tells Crocker-Harris that he will have to relinquish his end-of-term leaving speech doesn’t. The point is that Crocker-Harris isn’t a threat, he’s forgettable: a man to be brushed aside to make way for the new.
This is why starting with the profound uncertainty of Hare’s play is so effective. Crocker-Harris may be superseded in his post by a dashing young man who met his wife in a bar but there’s no sense in Rattigan that private school as a symbol of a particular social order is under threat; variations may occur within it, but not to it. But we have seen the future, in a set stripped of the cosy sofas and clutter of books before us now. Change comes to all things, whether it’s people, institutions – or forms of theatre.