The History Boys at The Gulbenkian

1420153_10153535992620099_487206001_n1Henry Broome reviews The History Boys, performed by University drama society T24. Here is what he thought:

The History Boys by Alan Bennett is a play that needs little introduction. it first took to the stage in 2004 at the Royal National Theatre. It then stormed our Transatlantic cousins on Broadway and has been globe-trotting ever since.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the play’s excitement has been exhausted in its nine years. On the contrary last week the University of Kent Drama Society T24 pinned it down for a few days, and what’s more drew new meaning from Bennett’s original intentions.

Irwin is the inspiration of this reinvention and it is through the emphasis of his in-the-wings character that the audience paradoxically understand the whole . He is a teacher on the peripheries of the two groups of mingling clowns, and is ordinarily somewhat alienated from the plot. On the one hand there are the boisterous and dynamic Oxbridge hopefuls. When these monkeys are in full swing they are as appealing as pin-ball machine to a child . However, there is an equal and opposite reaction to this tutored chaos: Hector, Lintott and the Headmaster. These sad extinguished embers are the stimulus for a special breed of black comedy which was fantastically delivered to an appreciative audience. The memory of their university days is soiled, and a jaded Lintott, far from nostalgic, recalls: ‘it’s where I had my first pizza. Other things, too, of course, but it’s the pizza that stands out.’

On face value, there are apparently only two groups in this play but it is clear Irwin doesn’t fit in with these tainted relics. He is almost as fresh faced as the students he teaches, who jokingly question whether he might be on his gap year. No, he’s not really like the other teachers but then neither is he one of the boys. Irwin is too circumspect, too pensive; unlike the fearless pupils he teaches. He is stranded in a time and space between youth and maturity; and this is what the production so brilliantly emphasises.

Eighties anthems from The Smiths and New Order blare out as the cast readjust the props. These songs are not simply there to get a few feet tapping while the cast recuperate. It is no coincidence that the cast are part of this building up and breaking down of the space through which we travel back and forward through time. The people watching this production are purposely made aware that is not an interlude but a continuation of the play.

Similarly, a blackboard that stood behind the actors for the duration of the play was collaged with various posters that represent the bygone era, including René Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe accompanied with the phrase ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘this is not a pipe’). Nothing is as it appears. Dali’s surrealist melting clocks hang there too. But what does all this mean? T24 are clearly hinting something…let’s return to Irwin.

The boys in the play represent youth and origins and the teachers: exhaustion and decline. As previously mentioned there is a mistaken temptation to polarise Irwin as one or the other. The devices used to confuse the audience’s perspective of setting and time lead to the analogy that people are multitudinous; in constant transition. They can’t simply be pigeon-holed in one group, one time, one place or its equal opposite.

This idea is somewhat problematic, it seems to strand us in moments that are being systematically deconstructed. This all sounds very surreal and sombre. We are left feeling mystified and in search of a silver-lining.

Well, is that not in itself a consolation? As this play and in particular this production reveals we may well be isolated but paradoxically that is what makes it a source of empathy.

Emily Dickinson, the great American poet aphorised

‘I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there’s a pair of us!’

T24, like Dickinson, have reversed the standard societal procedure of denigrating diversity and have instead adopted a much wiser stance that embraces it. Surely, everyone can agree with the sentiments of this production? Maybe this is met with a groan but it is as Dakin says: ‘clichés can be quite fun. That’s how they got to be clichés’.

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