The summer repertory season at Southwold draws to a close with an Alan Bennett play, The Old Country. Written in the late 70s it explores the idea of exile and betrayal both emotional and political. It is a theme Bennett has mined on several occasions, from a Russian tale based on a Coral Brown anecdote, A Gentleman Abroad to the more esoteric portrayal of the establishment with their attraction to and dalliance with communism, as Blunt, the keeper of the Queen’s pictures in A Question of Attribution, explains about fakes.
Bennett’s earlier work The Old Country is altogether less cryptic save the surprise of not knowing where we are for some considerable time: an isolated country bolt -hole or somewhere more sinister perhaps? He gives us clues, the fauna and flora, the phone calls, the uninvited guests but perhaps the greatest sense of unease is created by the feeling that they are not alone, it is not just “Hilary watching Hilary’, that seems so intriguing. Southwold Theatre have excelled themselves with this worthy production of a complex play.
With subtle lighting by Mark Sterling and designed by Maurice Reubens in relaxing and inviting tones of blue, the set suggests, on the surface at least, a home counties retreat or a suburban comfortable setting – but as the play unfolds things are not what they seem; be it location, character or intention. The truth slowly unfolds to reveal a group of well-connected intelligentsia, who understand what must be done, even if not wholly approved of, in order to restore a balance of some kind.
Hilary, played by the excellent Jim Morley, discusses his predicament with questioning derision for all things that only the well connected and privileged can afford to exercise. He seems at once committed to his political position as he happily points out the ironies of the establishment and old boy network in particular where middleclass respectability affords you the luxury of slipping under the radar of the Foreign Office and government. Principally Morley conveys the sense of a dull, domestic bully, full of his own importance and over confident in his social status who sought his moment of glory in the suburbs trading information with the enemy to promote a theoretical system of government he never thought he would have to endure. He is a traitor, as is forcibly pointed out by Bron, his wife. Bron, played with great empathy by Barbara Horne, radiates tolerance and long standing suffering at having been duped by a traitor, more interested in self-gratification than political change and a betrayer who has thoughtlessly brought them to exile, thus depriving her of her retirement and conventional validation of an honest life. She fears ending her days in an unmarked coffin on the tarmac at Heathrow where her name cannot even be pronounced, let alone remembered.
However, all may not be lost as a visit from her brother in law, the suave Michael Shaw as Duff brings other options. He gives off the confident air of a Knight of the realm, spouting relentless accounts of his connections, his ambitions and his successes. This wonderfully engaging performance from Shaw allows Bennett’s text to crisply rise up and expose the dark and murky under-belly of the establishment. A performance that is élan, tough and uncompromising allows Shaw to shine as he navigates the ins and outs of loyalty and commitment, not only to one’s country but also to personal relationships and of course to oneself. Deftly supported by the stylish Imogen Slaughter who plays his wife, Veronica. Slaughter wittily entertains with waspish one-liners, catching the acerbic charm of Bennett. Into the mix comes the surprise visit from Olga and Eric. Unclear as to why a draughtsman from Portsmouth and a local Russian might be so unhappily involved we are drawn into a world of intrigue. Mellissa Clements and Bob Dobson capture a relationship that is both dependent and suffocating where making good of what you’ve got may be the only option for this pair. It’s not about choice it’s about survival. While Olga facilitates an exchange of personnel Eric reveals a troubling sexual edge in some scenes when making overtures to and ultimately exposing the sexual dalliances of Duff allowing Bennett to explore a different aspect of concealment and betrayal.
This is a challenging play that demands much of its audience; it leaves you contemplating the role of nationalism, loyalty, and betrayal and shear ambition as it rides rough shod over altruism. Here the centre holds fast and power not only corrupts but is crucial in maintaining the established social order where the few benefit from the many. It is not a surprise when Veronica is told that Eric wants to return with them that she exclaims “ What, to Moscow?” totally ignoring the possibility that the ordinary working class draughtsman might just have the same inclinations as the more elite and self confessed communist, Hilary. There is no place in the establishment for the likes of working class Eric, after all what that ‘type’ want is of little concern.
Bennett gives us a chilling insight into espionage as well as social divisions between classes where loyalties are tested and found wanting, illustrating how the moneyed feel entitled to political expressions not afforded to the working class. You can share political ideology but don’t mistake it for equality. It is not Bennett’s best play but this smart, atmospheric production directed with sensitivity and flair by Phil Clark resonates in these post Brexit times, as it shines a light on class, sex, politics and power.
Bennett may have dealt with these subjects more roundly in other works but this play nevertheless allows us to recall a time when grace a favour attitudes seemed embedded in society making us realise they have not gone very far away.
Aldeburgh and Southwold theatres playing until September 10th2016