‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, so said L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between. Down the years his succinct statement has been appropriated to many other works and eras, especially those seemingly removed from our own contemporary lives. So begins the world presented in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, a world of public-school camaraderie, or lack of it, Conservative values and a total lack of female interaction. Lean in a little closer though, and Mitchell’s play seems to beg many similar questions of today’s society as it does of the 1930’s upper-class world it is portraying.
The Cambridge Five Spy Ring came to attention in the 1950s when it was made public that a number of senior government officials had been passing information to the KGB during the Second World War. That they were part of The Establishment made the story even more scandalous and by 1979 exposure that the Fourth Man was Anthony Blunt, University Professor and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures inspired Mitchell to write this play. Fictionalising the school days of ringleader Guy Burgess, the play explains why someone born into such a uniquely British privilege would turn his back on his country and become a spy.
When it was first performed in 1981 it launched the careers of Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis. Its subject matter of schoolboy homosexuality, desertion and revenge was part of the appeal, and thirty years after it was first performed its ability to fascinate and engage is still apparent during its current run at Chichester Festival Theatre. The play’s lead actors, Will Attenborough as Tommy Judd and Rob Callender as Guy Bennett (the Burgess character) handle the often difficult subject matter with ease, their comic timing is perfect. Callender offers a charm and swagger that more than explains his nonchalance toward public school etiquette.
Bennett’s friend Tommy Judd, (Attenborough) a committed Marxist, carries a copy of Das Kapital about him at all times and refuses to join in the fun of sport, canning and class-riddled hierarchy. It is after one-such brutal canning that Bennett begins to question the society he is bound to, he becomes interested in Russia and it’s ‘perfect’ communist regime and although it is not shown, joins the KGB instead of the British Foreign Office.
Jeremy Herrin directs a young cast with ease, the younger members display a wide-eyed nervousness that matches the feeling many public-schoolboys of the time had of being thrust into the limelight of a changing world. The factual details of Burgess’s life are interjected into the play at the appropriate moments, the best being that his homosexuality came about because he walked in on his father’s fatal heart-attack during particularly vigorous copulation with his mother, allow for a sense of stark reality and darkness amid the toffy-nosed humour. All of the cast seem acutely aware of the delicate balance between humour and depth, reality and fiction. The supporting cast is lead by Julian Wadham, the only adult character, as literary, Bloomsbury-esque man Vaughan Cunningham, who’s disestablishmentarian and objective views only fuel Judd and Burgess’s increasing disillusionment.
That the play has been revived in 2013, when England has seen a return to the kind of public-school ruling Burgess witnessed had done much to re-kindle its relevance. Oliver Johnson, who plays the Conservative Fowler could have taken his inspiration from a plethora of members of our current Senior Cabinet. The ideological conflicts affecting the main characters are mirrored in today’s young socialists and the challenge Russia is facing from the Western world regarding its LGBT stance at this year’s Winter Olympics is not dissimilar from the attitudes it projected in the inter-war years.
Anyone who has read the excellent The Untouchable by John Banville, a study of the life of Fourth Man, Anthony Blunt, will understand how difficult the roman-à-clef genre is to write and get away with, but the genre could have been created for the story of the Cambridge Spies. The script is peppered with illusions to other members and the reasons they gave for turning their backs on the country that was created for them. Another Country begins and end with an ensemble rendition of ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ an unsubtle nod to the irony that the play uses to evoke the emerging communist views.
For anyone who hasn’t been to an all-boys public-school or holds the Establishment in any kind of regard, you should get a ticket, Mitchell’s play is wholly relevant and will shatter any illusions you may have.