Jeremy Herrin’s revival of Julian Mitchell’s moving play Another Country captures a fascinating moment in history that holds a striking relevance today. The title is drawn from ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ and the patriotic hymn bookends the play – a gloomy look into politics, homosexuality, and the making of a spy of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring – with a heavy irony.
Tommy Judd (Will Attenborough) and Gus Bennett (Rob Callender) are young men at a public school in the Thirties struggling with the trials and torments of the establishment with its rigid traditions and cane-brandishing prefects. They are also stereotypes: Bennett is a pretty, gay student who holds a lot of secrets about the casual, though very hidden, homosexual behaviour of the school and who isn’t afraid to use them to his advantage. He falls in love easily and spends a great deal of the first half lying on the windowsill of the library admiring his beloved with binoculars, spouting witticisms like a young Oscar Wilde. Judd, meanwhile, is a young dreamer of a different kind. He dismisses feeling in favour of statistics and spends his nights reading ‘Das Kapital’ under the covers with a torch or in the library in front of his bust of Lenin. Theirs is an unlikely friendship but the pair find companionship in their disillusionment with the establishment.
After the suicide of a gay student, the prefects embark upon a suppression of homosexual behaviour in a school in moral crisis. What follows is a touching exploration of sexuality, liberty and philosophy featuring some outstanding performances, notably from Rob Callender and Julian Wadham who, after playing Barclay in the original 1892 production, returns to Another Country as the intriguing liberal conscientious objector Vaughan Cunningham. Bill Milner brings some welcome comic relief as jittery first year Wharton, while Cai Brigden (Delahay) and Mark Quartley (Barclay) bring bags of brooding pain as the older students tormented by their guilty consciences. The young cast bring Another Country to life.
Public school is presented as a breeding ground for secrets, lies, and Soviet spies. At times it’s hard to tell whether Mitchell is critical of or faintly nostalgic for the idiosyncrasies of the English public school system but he certainly evokes them faultlessly with his writing, laden, at risk of excluding some audience members, with the language and rituals that for the secret code that only a public school alumnus would understand. There’s no doubt that this is a stunning play and the parallels with our own modern ruling class, the Old Boys in Westminster, are impossible to ignore. The reprise of the melancholy ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ will give you chills.