March 27, 2006: Bennett, The Old Country

Trafalgar Studios. Revival of a play first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, London, on 7 September 1977. This production opened at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre, Guildford, 1 February 2006. Directed by Stephen Unwin.

Bennett’s star is high right now, thanks to the great success of his play The History Boys; a film of that play, Bennett’s program bio informs us, will be releas­ed shortly. That’s what seems to lie behind the revival of a 1970s play about a British spy living in exile in Russia who, it turns out in Act II, is to be exchanged for a Russian spy being held by the British. A tawdry situation, and we are let in on the dirty little plan only gradually. The exiled spy, Hilary, and his wife, the long-suffering Bron, are living a quiet life in the country, visited only by a young starry-eyed but now disillusioned Brit, Eric, who has married a young, quite insufferable prig of a Russian named — what else? — Olga (who turns out to be working for the Russian authorities and is in on, and perhaps even a low-level manager of, the spy switcheroo). Bennett disguises this framework as well as he can during Act I, but of necessity brings it into the foreground in Act II. There it becomes apparent that Hilary and Bron’s new visitors — Duff, lately the recipient of a knighthood, and Veronica, his fashion-statement wife — are not just on vaca­tion in rural Russia but have come to lead him (and Bron) away and back to the “old country.” Duff did so desperately hope that he could persuade Hilary to decide to go back to England of his own volition, but it becomes apparent that Hilary cannot bear the thought. He is not-happy where he is, needs his numerous books (the set is piled high with them), listens to Elgar on LP’s, over the object­ion of Bron, who just hates Elgar, and Vaughn Williams too, and is anchored in the status quo. Hence the title of the play, ironic as it plainly is.

This scaffolding, more than a little adventitious, has been erected for the prim­­ary if not sole purpose of giving us a protracted study in the modes of irony, personified in the character of Hilary. A sophisticated, intelligent, but grossly opinionated man, Hilary is the heavy load shouldered by all who know him and even the one person, Bron, who loves him. Bennett manages to avoid sentiment­al­izing Hilary — there was little danger of that, given Bennett’s temperament as a dramatist — and he achieves the more remarkable feat of making us like him, in a curious kind of way. After all, we do relish the barbs that Hilary launches al fresco, and his extemporaneous diatribes are wonderful fun also. They serve to endear him, almost, to us, even though we begin to see things that Hilary, for all his intelligence, is blind to.

Mostly what he cannot see is the short-lived quality of his present circum­stances, which he appears to consider a sort of cynosure, apparently naïve to the larger political realities of the time. He tells his story, beginning toward the end of Act I, as I recall, and continuing into Act II. It involves the fateful arrival on his desk in Whitehall, one day, of an envelope with a curiously Dickensian admon­ition: “Urgent!!” Key to the idea is the reference to Great Expectations, in which Wemmick leaves an envelope for Pip endorsed in this exact way; the contents of the envelope are the instruction “Don’t go home.” Within two hours, Hilary ex­plains, he and Bron were on their way to the Soviet Union, where they have been living ever since.

We have to remember at this point that this play appeared in the 1970s, well before the Berlin Wall came down, while the Cold War was the fundamental fact of international relations. The publicity about the play tries to suggest that aud­ien­ces will find in this revival some curious similarities of situation to the Eng­land of Tony Blair, but for the life of me I can’t see what they are. The play feels more like a time capsule. Nowhere is that more evident than in the character of Olga. Rebecca Charles plays her as straight-on as she can, but this Olga is a caric­ature — could Bennett do no better, have no better perspective on people, than this, in 1977? — And she has been costumed, made up, and directed to conform to the two-dimensional outline provided by Bennett. An entirely extraneous thought came to me, a few minutes into Olga’s arrival in Act I, that a phrase from The Importance of Being Earnest could capture her: that she was “fully forty-two and more than usually plain for her age.”

In any case, aside from what Rebecca Charles was asked to do, the perform­ances were very good. Timothy West, who has played Lear for this company (called ETT, the English Touring Theatre) and could well play Falstaff, gives an exact portrait of the self-destructive Hilary. Simon Williams is suitably unctuous and wholly detestable as the political climber Duff (oddly named, unless that’s Bennett’s irony too), immaculately dressed even for a private dinner with old friends. And he is nicely paired with Susan Tracy as his wife Veronica, with her freeze-dried coiffure and insouciant, studied inoffensiveness. If they represent “the old country,” we can see why no one would want to go back there, not in a hundred years.

But there’s a further level of irony on this question, too. “The old country” turns out to represent a concept always at loggerheads with the reality, both during and after the fact. Sad, but true; or perhaps sad, but false. The London that Hilary the traitor left was never the London, the England, that he thought he betrayed; nor is the Russia of tall trees and ramshackle housing safely distant from Moscow the “old country” that Hilary has unhappily settled into. These are all constructs, Bennett gradually instructs us, that people themselves build because it suits their needs and their fantasies to do so. They are very difficult if not impossible to let go of, and as long as we are in their grip we cannot escape them.

Finally, it is ironic that the way we learn to live with them is through ironiz­ing them, pretending that we really see through them even while we are depend­ent on them for life and breath. A hard lesson, but it comes through pretty clearly enough in this revival of what must have been quite a play when it first appeared. Olga must have been believable then. Revisiting it was well worth the effort, des­pite its lack of anything specific to say to Tony Blair — who wouldn’t be able to find time to come to see it anyway.

— Trafalgar Studios, I should have explained, is the old Whitehall, which has undergone a complete refurbishment and is now two “studio” theaters. The larger has a smallish stage and a steeply raked single-section auditorium; this one is supposedly a much smaller, 100-seat theatre. Seems like more flexibility; but I paid £40 for my seat in Row B, all the same.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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