South Downs/ The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre, London’s West End, May 2012

Terence Rattigan’s excellent short play The Browning Version is set in a boys’ boarding school, and for the first half of the evening a new play by David Hare, commissioned the Rattigan estate, has a similar setting.

The Browning Version is about one of the masters, and Hare’s counterpoint focusses on one of the boys. In both plays an act of kindness is the fulcrum lifting the main protagonist out of the tramlines of his sad, yet very scholarly, existence.

Alex Lawther as the clever boy, all images Johan Persson

In Hare’s South Downs a pedantic English master, beautifully played by Andrew Woodall, extols the genius of Alexander Pope, saying “only within a cage do we find freedom”. Indeed a firm foundation and attention to detail provides a basis for true creativity, something that began going awry in the 70s after Hare left school. We still suffer the consequences, and although intellectual rigour is now making a comeback, it has a long way to go.

Tea and cake for Blakemore

Yet here in class is a very clever boy, Blakemore, brilliantly played by young Alex Lawther, who challenges the master in order to protect a boy he wants as his friend. Blakemore is disturbed, but finds it impossible to talk to his housemaster, Rev Eric Dewley, a man of the Church of England who believes in consubstantiation rather than trans-substantiation, but isn’t really sure about that. It’s a clever play, with Dewley very well portrayed by Nicholas Farrell, himself the focus of Rattigan’s play in the second half of the evening. Something needs to happen to Blakemore, and Anna Chancellor as the actress mother of one of the prefects gives him tea and sympathy, faulting him for being unable to dissemble. This is something Rattigan himself was extremely good at when he was at school at Harrow, yet in the end Blakemore manages a transformation, and we move on to Rattigan’s play.

The term Browning Version refers to a translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon by Robert Browning, and the dry-as-dust Classics master, Crocker-Harris is a brilliant scholar who is teaching the boys to read it, in the original of course. This is pretty tough stuff. Yet it’s not the boys who are suffering, but Crocker-Harris himself, superbly portrayed by Nicholas Farrell. He is recovering from a heart attack caused by the chronic stress of an apparently charming but deceptive wife who hates him, a headmaster who is happy to see the back of him, and his own despair at casting scholarly pearls before swine.

Nicholas Farrell as Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version

He’s on track to leave the school — without even a pension — and go to work at a crammer. Could anything be more absurd? Here is a man who should be teaching classical texts at university level, yet to the lower fifth he’s simply the Crock, a beast to beware of. Oh, he understands his position all right. A ‘hen-pecked husband’ to an ‘unsatisfied wife’, the butt of contempt or fear by others. But what can he do about it?

Anna Chancellor as the wife

“Rules are rules” he responds when the disturbingly disappointing news comes down from the trustees about his pension. The pompous fraud of a headmaster, played with carefree abandon by Andrew Woodall, almost seems to relish giving him the bad news, coupled with a request that he diminish himself by allowing someone else to speak last at the end of year celebrations. His dry speech with a hyper-scholarly joke or two is all prepared, and he accedes to the headmaster’s proposal.

Yet suddenly an act of kindness by one of the boys turns everything on its head. This is vintage Rattigan, and I was longing to know what his new speech might be — we never do, of course.

But we do know that precision and attention to detail by a clever scholar can work wonders, as long as he can divest himself of the psychological baggage weighing him down. What might Crocker-Harris have achieved with a less spiteful wife? And how much better might this performance have been if Anna Chancellor as the wife had delivered the main line in the play facing the audience rather than stage rear? In this fascinating and moving portrayal of the dry scholar by Nicholas Farrell we find hope that the precision of Greek translation can once again give huge pleasure and revitalise his life.

These two plays together yield a wonderful evening of theatre. Performances continue until July 21 — for details click here.

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