Since Anna Haines’ 2018 production of ‘The History Boys’ at Castle, Durham, a lot has changed. Director Luke Blackstock’s adaptation of the play, performed this week at City Theatre by Feather Theatre Company, found its footing in the new context of 2021. Durham is already a setting perfectly cultured to the play, being renowned for its students’ obsessive Oxbridge fetishization. Alan Bennett’s writing both pokes fun at and admires the academic standards set forward by Oxbridge, finding the ultimate audience in a bunch of the play’s ‘could-be’s: the Oxbridge rejects. This performance was profound, intimate, and, of course, downright funny (though prepare for those heart-string-tugging interview memories to resurface).
I could list the actors who were particularly engaging in their performance, but I would run the risk of overspilling this article’s word count. Each actor, with special credit to the protagonists Hector (Ben Willow), Irwin (Oscar Nicholson), Dakin (Ben Smart) and Posner (Stephen Ledger), performed their hearts out. I found myself leaning forward in my seat as if engaged in conversation with each of them individually, frowning with their tears and laughing with their humorous jerks. As the play concluded over an icily lit stage, I was almost shocked to see the main lights come on and the actors walk forward to take their bow, so immersive was their acting.
Where the wonderful casting made this performance stand out, the staging itself was reasonably classic. The set was appropriately bare and dingy, with a small bookshelf and blackboard hinting at the classroom setting, but giving the audience no unique visual twists or nuances to cling on to. Meanwhile the tech director, Lali Rhydderch, minimally used the main lights, dimmed half-lights, and the occasional spotlight, to ensure the focus was on the characters. By keeping the lighting minimal and understated, Rhydderch allowed the audience to become a part of the play’s classroom, furthered by the small scale of the theatre. This setting of Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ was simplistic, leaving space (despite the ironically tight stage size) for the actors to shine.
The performance fell slightly short in the constant and clumsy shifting formations of chairs around the stage. The hierarchical order of the chairs in Irwin’s classes was contrasted by the eccentric and gentle formation of Hector’s, spatially enacting their characters. The meaning that Blackstock was trying to convey using chairs was fairly evident, but it really disrupted more than it succeeded. Emotionally charged scenes were followed by a clashing and clanking of plastic against metal, drowning out those all too important last lines and comments. Moving around the chairs also meant the actors had to briefly turn their backs on the audience, disrupting the sense of intimacy developed by the small stage and direct addresses. At one point, a nail fell out of a chair and broke what could have been a profound moment. It felt a bit too much as if the cast members were stage assistants, focused on setting the chairs in perfect line with the tape markings on the floor, rather than on their performance. Those pesky chairs seemed to hold too much value on stage where the characters themselves, complex and masterfully acted, could have shone through more.
The directorial success of this play lay then in its tendency towards exaggeration, wonderfully suited to Bennett’s writing. No sad scene was quite sad enough, no humorous scene quite ridiculous enough. This reached its epitome in Dakin’s meta-performance as a French prostitute-seeker, stripping to his underwear and stretching himself across the front of the floor. The stage being only a couple of feet from the front row, I’m grateful that the only view I got was from the third. In another scene, Smart’s Dakin found a curious moment of connection with the audience in his attempts at flirting with Irwin, acting with just the right level of awkwardness and with a connective consciousness of the audience. Meanwhile, the mock-interview scene saw Mrs Lintott (Mimi Nation-Dixon) rouse up the stage with an emotional speech on the torments of womanhood, stunning both the audience and the boys on-stage into hushed silence. Her moment of centrality had no spotlight, as Irwin’s speeches did, and had little of the mournfulness of Posner’s soliloquising singing, but it still stood out as a marking point in the performance.
The refreshing context of this play in 2021 did not stop at it being on a new stage with a new cast. As the somehow sympathetic Hector tells his class, ‘there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it’, a sentence which finds new resonances in our pandemic world. When Irwin tells the audience and his class that people care more about things than about other people I, for one, raised my eyebrows in the direction of the alleged No.10 Christmas party during lockdown restrictions. This year has put the morals presented in ‘The History Boys’ to the test, and while Blackstock does not particularly play into the possibilities of the Covidian context (perhaps to avoid ‘commemorating’ it), the script itself works to bring the pandemic into our minds. None of these classroom characters have the moral positioning of a PM, and so we are able to watch them in all their human flaws, successes, and hurts. A resounding success: my commendations go towards Blackstock, Rhydderch, supporting members and the cast.
Featured Image: Credit to Harrison Newsham, with permission.