The government vs Bennett
Hurrah for Masquerade’s production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys! Evidently, director Andy Smith runs a tight ship for here was a case of teamwork with none of your usual amateur individual attempts to outshine at the expense of others and of the integrity of the whole. What performances stood out, they did so because the structure of the play required it. This is professional competence, not amateur bravura.
Hurrah for Malcolm Galea! An impressive craftsman, he constructed a convincing Irwin, the teacher for whom history (mediaeval or of his own) is a mere store of elements for the construction of spin. “Convincing” may be a paradoxical term of praise for a character whose principal characteristic is an utter lack of conviction in anything. His surgical incisions across Irwin’s mask gave us a glimpse of the terrifying emptiness beneath it.
Hurrah for Nanette Brimmer. Her Mrs Lintott brimmed with irrepressible energy erupting to the surface defeating the author’s own attempt to repress it. The only female character visible in a misogynist space, the others are kept away from the stage, as if they were obscene (ob scena, “that which should be hidden”). Mrs Lintott could arguably be dismissed as a token co-opted by an author with a keen eye to an educated gender-sensitive market. But then one would have to agree that not even the author – god of his own creation – could hide the more than half of humanity she represents.
Hurrah for Francesco Catania, David Chircop, Paul Cuschieri, Alexander Gatesy Lewis, James Muscat, Collin Willis and Joseph Zammit for their practically seamless jeu d’ensemble. And for Jon Rosser’s Hector, a veteran’s performance whose strength lies in its rigorous understatement, and for Luke Farrugia, a promising beginner who gave his Posner a courageous but measured disinhibition uncommon in our homophobic culture.
Hurrah for Andrè Agius (Daikin), whose intuitive command of the stage and whose talent will take him places if he can resist the usual temptation of goldfish confined in jam jars, namely of mistaking themselves for whales. Good to know that he and others in the cast are venturing out into the wider world, the only way of establishing one’s true value.
The staging just over a week ago of Bennett’s now four-year-old and still unrepentantly ungenteel tragicomedy, at the Manoel, a rococo theatre built for the “honest entertainment” of our then genteel but firmly absolutist rulers and now, 270 years later, still a favourite salon of the island’s genteel classes, calls for reflection.
Now, the adjective “genteel” has a variety of meanings. It may mean “having an aristocratic quality or flavour” or “free from vulgarity or rudeness” or “conventionally or insipidly pretty”. It may mean “of or relating to the gentry or upper class” or “maintaining or striving to maintain the appearance of superior or middle-class social status or respectability”. It may also be used to refer to a manner of behaviour “marked by false delicacy, prudery, or affectation” (Webster).
The History Boys is “ungenteel” principally because it is not “marked by false delicacy, prudery, or affectation”. The same cannot be said of all those who make up this country’s Establishment. This term includes, but is not restricted to, those wielding decisive political and economic power and those who justify, administer and ensure the continuity of this power in exchange for what is often an illusion of participating in the privileges it bestows. Not all those who recognise themselves in it are genteel holier-than-thou hypocrites but many are.
I wonder how many in the audience asked themselves if the recent controversial amendment to article 208 of the Criminal Code could have been invoked to censor those passages in the play graphically describing how Hector played with his students and what Daikin proposed to do to Irwin. And what about seeking Bennett’s extradition and throwing him in jail with all the cast? And the Manoel Theatre management committee? Isn’t it as responsible as the student editor who was charged for publishing a graphic story earlier this year?
I wonder how many considered the moral incongruity of a government that, to quote this paper’s editorial last Thursday, “would seem (to have) lost the plot in the issue over the investigation of the tender for the extension of the power station at Delimara” and its posing, with a great show of “false delicacy, prudery or affectation”, as the judge of what we may or may not read, watch and listen to, and do in our private lives.
This production of The History Boys highlights some of the cracks in the Establishment. I have been saying all along in this column that the ground beneath the feet of the governing elite is increasingly shaky. Stability is not only a matter of enough numbers in Parliament but a question of credibility throughout civil society. Faced with these players’ courage and intelligence, any Establishment is naked. If it censors them, it will alienate many of those that have so far recognised themselves in it. If it doesn’t, it will appear weak.
The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on October 25, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101025/opinion/the-government-vs-bennett