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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 21st January 2006

The History Boys / Gem of the Ocean / Lies Have Been Told


There's a good deal wrong with The History Boys, which has returned for a second run at the National with a new cast before transferring to Broadway. To begin with, you can't drive a motorcycle with one hand. The central character, a charismatic teacher called Hector, is supposed to drive his motorbike with one hand while reaching behind him and touching up his teenage passengers with the other. But to pull off such a feat would be beyond even the most accomplished stunt rider. Alan Bennett, the author of The History Boys, has either never driven a motorcycle--or driven one so long ago he's forgotten how to do it.

Does this matter? Of course not. It doesn't matter, either, that the schoolboys in the play, which is set in the 80s, are fluent in French, can recite vast chunks of English literature from memory and seem to have no cultural references more recent than 1945. Nor does it matter that their attitude to being touched-up by Hector is one of amused tolerance--they take it in turns to ride on the back of his motorbike and make only half-hearted efforts to fend him off. When one boy asks another if he thinks they'll be in any way affected by this experience, he expresses the hope that they'll be scarred for life. At least that way, he says, they'll have a shot at producing some decent literature.

Clearly, this is a Britain that's very far removed from the one we're living in today, with its tabloid witch-hunts of suspected paedophiles. It's a fantasy world, a Golden Age--Britain before the fall. The reason Bennett has conjured up this Shangri La is to make our modern world seem tawdry and corrupt by comparison. He shows us glimpses of Britain as it is today--a ghastly, media-saturated Sodom and Gomorrah--then quickly returns us to the comfort of his make believe kingdom. The History Boys is an angry play and the reason it strikes such a chord with audiences is because Bennett's dissatisfaction with contemporary Britain is so widely shared. As a piece of Grumpy Old Man propaganda, it's devastatingly effective. I left the theatre longing for a state school as good as this one to send my children to.

What's so impressive about the play is Bennett's mastery of theatrical language--and the understanding that clearly exists between Bennett and Nicholas Hytner, the director. A character will suddenly walk to the front of the stage in the middle of a scene and address the audience directly as if talking to someone composing a work of oral history at some point in the future. In less practised hands, such a device might seem clumsy, but the transitions are so smooth it seems entirely natural. There are a handful of songs, too, as well as skits, pastiches--even a dance number. Bennett is like a conjurer at the height of his powers, using his box of tricks to maximum advantage. I suspect there's slightly less to The History Boys than meets the eye--the intellectual content of the play isn't quite as dazzling as Bennett's theatrical technique--but it's a joy to behold nevertheless. This is the second time I've seen The History Boys and I was worried that, like The Producers, it wouldn't really work without it's original star in the lead. But, in his own way, Desmond Barrit is just as good as Richard Griffiths.

The Gem of the Ocean is surprisingly easy-going, considering it's the penultimate work in August Wilson's 10-play cycle about the African-American experience in the 20th Century. Set in Pittsburgh in the 1900s, it chronicles the lives of four housemates who live under the roof of a 285-year-old woman--a spiritual healer called Aunt Esther with a talent for "washing souls". Like many of Wilson's plays, The Gem of the Ocean is rather threadbare from a dramatic point of view, with nothing much happening in the way of plot until the last half-an-hour or so, but it's completely absorbing nevertheless. If one of Wilson's aims in his 10-play cycle is to give a voice to people that, hitherto, have had to suffer in silence, he achieves it majestically in The Gem of the Ocean. There's one character in particular--a former slave called Eli played by Lucian Msamati--who is so extraordinarily vivid he seems destined, like Falstaff, for literary immortality. August Wilson died on October 2nd of last year and it's too early to say how posterity will judge him, but watching this play you really do feel you're in the presence of genius. This production, directed by Paulette Randall, is almost flawless.

Lies Have Been Told, a one-man show about Robert Maxwell, left me cold, I'm afraid. Philip Yorke, the actor saddled with the task of bringing Maxwell to life, starts out as a complete ogre, then gradually tries to win the audience's sympathy--which is exactly how it should be. But I couldn't bring myself to warm to the Bouncing Czech. That may be because I was one of the last people ever to be pursued by him through the courts. He owed me £5,000 when he went missing at sea--I was awarded costs after winning the first round in the legal battle--but I still have no wish to see him brought back to life.

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