Preview: The History Boys

Less than a decade old, Alan Bennett’s play is already a modern British classic. But during its short life, attitudes have changed considerably, says Kevin Bourke

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It may come as a surprise to realise that Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – his enormously funny, erudite, provocative and poignant tale of a group of Sheffield grammar school boys being groomed for Oxbridge by a charismatic, but closeted homosexual teacher – is not yet quite ten years on from its premiere. The play has embedded itself into the national consciousness so comprehensively that there have already been hugely successful runs at the National Theatre, in the West End, on Broadway and on several national and international tours, as well as a film version. Along the way, it’s also helped to launch some notable careers, including those of James Corden and Matt Smith.

So it’s quite a unique challenge not only to reinvigorate the play but also to do so in Sheffield, the very city where Bennett placed its fictional grammar school.

But this, it turns out, was far from the only challenge for director Michael Longhurst, who’s reviving the play at Sheffield Lyceum later this month.

“We’re now living in post-Savile times, when the sexual politics of the play will be really under scrutiny in a very interesting and necessary way,” the director points out. “Personally, I found the play incredibly problematic, as none of the characters judge [teacher] Hector, except to call him a ‘twerp’.

“I’m probably the youngest director to tackle the piece and our attitudes to Hector change quite significantly generationally, I think. When Bennett was at school, homosexuality was illegal. Now we have CRB checks. These things change how we view the play.

“Ultimately, a way to honour Bennett’s play but also for me to be able to find an angle that interested me was to try to address the very important question: what do we do when someone we love does something abhorrent?

“Alan Bennett has been nothing but supportive about it and when I spoke to him he made it clear he feels very strongly that the boys are more sophisticated than Hector, that he’s the weak person in that relationship. But a modern view could be that they are groomed by him.

“For the play to work we have to love Hector. But that doesn’t mean the rug can’t be pulled very swiftly from under his feet. I think the play also works for me because Hector despises himself for what he does.”

In both the original stage version of the play and the film, Hector was played by Richard Griffiths. The spontaneous outpouring of genuine sorrow at the recent death of the actor indicates he’s a tough act to follow. Longhurst’s Hector is Manchester-born actor Matthew Kelly, who coincidentally (and unknown to the director), was two years below Richard Griffiths at drama school. A decade ago, Kelly himself was briefly caught up in a teenage sex scandal, from which he was rapidly and completely exonerated. Nonetheless, the experience has left him understandably wary about press interviews. It’s left to Longhurst, then, to point out that it could potentially have been a very hard part for any actor to make their own.

“We needed someone with as much charisma and personality as Richard, someone who could put their own stamp on the role. Matthew, I can say, was very excited to play the role of this brilliant but very flawed character.”

The play should also look and feel quite different from previous productions, he hopes.

“I’m really not a fan of having a naturalistic set on stage, I like plays that are very theatrical. This play’s not really naturalistic, anyway, with these boys all sounding like little Oscar Wildes, or Alan Bennetts, so witty and erudite and sophisticated.

“I think there’s more fun to be had in embracing what theatre can do and sets should be playgrounds for actors to explore.

“The Crucible space is allowing us to really go to town with our design, which is going to be quite bold, nothing like it was before, but very playful and punky. There’s so much teenage energy in the play about frustration and growing up and we’re hoping to put the whole of school life on stage at one time.”

The History Boys is at Sheffield Crucible on 16 May-8 June

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