The History Boys

Westpac St James, Wellington

24/02/2006 - 28/02/2006

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

By Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

National Theatre [UK]

From sell-out seasons at the National theatre in London … winner of three prestigious Laurence Oivier Awards for Best Play, Best Director and Best Actor.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner (who directed the film The Crucible) and starring Richard Griffiths (Pie in the Sky, Harry Potter) as hector, The History Boys follows a group of bright but unruly sisth form boys in the pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university.


Richard Griffiths, Malcolm Sinclair, Stephen Campbell Moore, Maggie Steed
James Corden, Jamey Parker, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett, Russell Tovey

Set deign by Bob CrowleyLighting design by Mark Henderson
Sound design by, Colin Pink’
Video inserts by Ben Taylor

Theatre ,

2 hrs 45 mins, incl. interval

Lives up to expectations

Review by Lynn Freeman 01st Mar 2006

NZ International Arts Festival Wrap, reviewed by Lynn Freeman.

IT feels almost cruel to rave about a production that sold out well before it opened.

If you couldn’t get a seat to The History Boys for love nor money I’m sorry to tell you that this production entirely lives up to the outrageously high expectations of it. Alan Bennett is a master wordsmith and storyteller, Richard Griffiths is a blisteringly great actor (as are Maggie Steed and Malcolm Sinclair).

"A grope is a grope" but you just can’t help loving Hector (Griffiths), who infuses his students with a love of learning and literature but a disdain for education, while fondling them when giving them rides on his motorcycle. The eight lads are terrific too, especially those whose roles give them a chance to shine – the handsome Dakin, the class clown, the down-to-earth Christian and poor Posner – too young, too smart, too gay and too sensitive.

Ultimately all Hector’s efforts lead to failure for himself and his students. At least he tried.


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More is more

Review by John Smythe 28th Feb 2006

[Foreword: My request to review The History Boys was declined but we were able to buy returned seats for Monday ($86.50 each), hence this late review. I should add they were nine rows back in the stalls, and we had no trouble hearing. The morning papers and radio bristled with complaints we’d already heard from justifiably outraged customers who’d paid $71.50 or $61.50 for gallery seats only to find great tracts of dialogue inaudible and, for some, the back projection screen decapitated. As I understand it, the cast at least were projecting much more last night, but there were still complaints from above.]

Alan Bennett’s surprise-hit play cannot help but engage anyone who has had an education, or attended school at least. Institutional teachers must feel even more connected. But its real focus is on how the imperatives of popular television have affected the way we learn history. And, as with good teaching, Bennett is not so much concerned with telling us what to think as with getting us to think things through for ourselves, not frivolously or for short-term glory but rigorously and as a contribution to future generations. I think.

In a 2004 essay entitled On False Pretences, reprinted in the programme, he reveals his own discovery of how attention-grabbing tactics can work in academia, and how he strategised to pass exams. On one level, he writes, The History Boys is an outcome of that: "both a confession and an expiation." At another level we may also see it as an exploration of the complexities and confusions that young – and not-so-young – men experience around sex and sexuality.

‘Pass the parcel’ is the final metaphor Bennett’s academically well-rounded but rather eccentric English teacher, Hector (under-played with great intelligence and emotional depth by Richard Griffiths), offers for education. All we can do, he sighs (posthumously, as it happens), is peel off a layer and pass it on. Which means what, exactly? I’m reminded of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who strips an onion skin-by-skin to demonstrate his search for his own true self only to discover that it – that he – is only layers with nothing at all at the heart. "Nature is witty!" he cries.

And so is The History Boys. Very. Does it matter that the lower-class and constantly put-down pupil Rudge (Russell Tovey), who has gone on to head an affordable housing empire, scores a huge laugh by claiming "History is just one fucking thing after another" as his own, when the quip dates back decades? (One source gives Henry Ford the credit, with "damned" in place of "fucking".) There is nothing new under the sun, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet observed, even if there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Alan Bennett’s lively text dances on pins that prick pretensions, egos and consciences alike in Nicholas Hynter’s dynamic (British) National Theatre production. Featuring the original cast, their fresh recreations in performance are greatly enhanced by Bob Crowley’s ingenious sliding panel set design lit by Mark Henderson, Colin Pink’s sound design, and Ben Taylor’s video inserts of school life and a popular TV take on the history of a monastery.

The boys of the title are eight grammar school pupils who gain education at many levels in the very different hands of three teachers and an arts-phobic geographer turned authoritarian Headmaster (Malcolm Sinclair), who is fixated on academic league tables and getting boys into Oxford and Cambridge.

While Hector has a passion for knowledge and wisdom – often quoting great minds to make his points – he is not curriculum-focused. "Nothing that happens here has anything to do with getting on," he tells his boys. His English lessons are just as likely to include improvisations in French (the bordello-cum-battlefield hospital sequence is a show-stopper) or songs from old movies, as the finer points of grammar or poetry, which he also loves. Spotting a gerund or subjunctive delights him as much as traditional poems which he describes – when Timms (James Corden) complains he can’t understand it because it’s about stuff that hasn’t happened to him yet – as the trailers for coming attractions.

The songs, exquisitely sung by Posner (Samuel Barnett), blend with his unrequited love for the self-loving bi-sexual sophisticate Dakin (Dominic Cooper) to weave a vivid thread of comic pathos throughout the play. His pianist and the play’s narrator is the celibate, God-seeking Scripps (Jamie Parker) who, like Posner, shares elements of Bennett’s own history. Scripps is also one of the boys who acquiesces to pillion duty on Hector’s motorbike, knowing he’ll be groped in the process: "The things I do for Jesus."

Hector’s inability to acknowledge and take mature responsibility for his homosexual tendencies and sleigh-of-hand abuse of power is his tragic and finally fatal flaw. Expressing affection-riddled frustration at his sad attempts to rationalise this behaviour falls to the school’s only female teacher, Mrs Lintott, the conventional and methodical but worldly-wise history teacher, delicately played by Maggie Steed (who, incidentally, also played Griffith’s wife in the TV series Pie in the Sky, while Sinclair played his police inspector boss).

One of the play’s most thought-provoking points, in the context of our current obsession with keeping young people safe, is Hector’s oft-made observation that the boys know more that they let on. So is its insight into the way the boys change their mode of being to suit each teacher. "What are we supposed to be?" they bleat, when confronted with teachers-in-tandem. "Thoughtful or smart?"

It is the Headmaster’s decision to get the boys match-fit for their entry exams and interviews, by bringing in a hotshot young history teacher, that catalyses the play’s core action. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) claims to be a Jesus College Oxford man but given his approach to history – based on the view that academics and the world at large are bored with regurgitated truth so the way to make your mark is to flip it on its head – who knows what the truth might be?

Because The History Boys (with this same original cast) is now a film, so everyone will have a chance to see (and hear) it, I won’t reveal how Irwin himself gets flipped on his head. Suffice to say that one of Bennett’s astute devices is to open each act with the initially unknown Tom Irwin in a motorised wheelchair, fronting his Heroes or Villians? documentary series. The questions this raises helps to provoke and sustain our interest through the 2½ hour running time (plus interval).

Bennett’s dramaturgical skill also shows in the audacity with which he segues from valedictory speeches for Hector to a leap-ahead view of where the boys end up. Had he submitted this script at the beginning of his career, he’d have been told it was trying to say too many things in too many conventions and he should cut it right back to focus on one or two: less is more, the cry would have been. But in this case more is more. To switch to a science-based model, The History Boys is a complex molecule with an elusive nucleus and, in the hands of a master craftsman, it’s the more engaging for that.

[Afterword (for those in NZ): One cannot see The History Boys without relating it to the living history of David Benson Pope, as would-be populist politician Rodney Hide and his gang of wreckers continue to exhume the bones of ancient incidents in ritual attempts to vilify and destroy him. And the populist media laps it up. I have to ask: have any of them seen The History Boys? If so they must now realise that while The Holocaust – as Irwin learns the hard way – may well be something that cannot yet be ‘put into perspective’ or viewed with detachment, the alleged past actions of David Benson Pope can be. His being demonised for short-term political gain and media profit is a sick joke that will surely, if we’ve ever learned anything of value through our own educations, do much more damage to the accusers than the accused.]


Kinloch March 5th, 2006

I am amused by your discussion of the history quote, attributing it ultimately to Henry Ford...then attributing Hamlet with "there is nothing new under the sun". I believe this first appeared in Job (of Bible fame) - a book that somewhat predates Shakespeare. Was this irony intended?

Kinloch March 5th, 2006

oops - make that King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes.

John Smythe March 5th, 2006

Fair comment - good point - and thanks for sharing your scholarship. A great deal of Shakespeare's work was not 'new' but reworkings of old stories and philosophical ideas, so why shouldn't Bennett do the same? I linked "nothing new under the sun" to Hamlet simply to be concise, because he also told Horatio there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy.

Bill Sheat March 2nd, 2006

I was seated in Row B in the stalls and I had trouble hearing. At times there was an echo effect which suggests that there was some miking going on. This production must have been audible in the cavernous theatrs of the National in London. Why were there difficulties in the St. James? I have seen straight plays in the St. James as far back as the Old Vic visit in 1948. During the 1950's Wellington Repertory put on a few of its major productione there when the Opera House was not available. For none of these was audibility a problem. It was difficult to hear Pete Postlewaight. Had he been asked to I have no doubt he could have wound up his level of performance and made himself audible. The fact that some of the audience could not see the screen must be the responsibility of the technical direction who were either not supplied with sufficient details of the theatre in advance or did not bother to make the necessary adjustments. There were also other problems to do with the regional accents of some of the boys. Much of this should have ben picked up at a dress rehearsal in the theatre. A touring production needs to have someone who is standing in for the director with enough skill to identify the problems and fix them.

Michael March 1st, 2006

On the complaints regarding inability to hear, we had tickets in the back row of the gods (all that was left when we booked in December) for Feb 24 and encountered no problems hearing at all. Obviously, I would have liked to have been closer in order to see facial expressions (instead of blurry, distant blobs), but there was no problem with hearing and I was surprised to learn of such complaints. Personally, I was glad the actors were not microphoned up. It often sounds fiercely artificial. I found the amplification quite distracting during Downstage's Little Shop of Horrors last year - obviously performers were competing with the band/orchestra, yet Big River and King & Country required no such amplification at the same venue. As ornate a venue as St James is (and the Opera House), I guess you just can't replace the intimacy of Bats, Circa and Downstage. (And that's with their lack of soundproofing!)

John Smythe March 1st, 2006

The worst example of amplifying actors at the St James would have to last year's celebrity two-hander tour of James Griffin's THEN COMES LOVE. The effect was to separate the voices from the bodies of their characters. Dame Maggie Smith and Maragaret Tyzak weren't amplified the year before in Bennett's TALKING HEADS monologues, but then they had the advantage opf talking straight to the sudience. On the other hand, in 2002, many people lauded the RSC actors in THE HOLLOW CROWN at the Michael Fowler Centre for doing it all without mics - but in fact judiciously placed floor microphones were used to subtly augment their voices. And they too had the advantage of a non-naturalistic style.

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Theatre at its best

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Feb 2006

THE HISTORY BOYS really oughtn’t work. It’s a seeming muddle of review sketches, filmed sequences, side-splitting farce about the use of the subjunctive in French, songs, hymns, poems, sparks of wisdom, hilarious one-liners, cheap jokes, and the roles of politics, the media, sex, history, and, above all, education in contemporary Britain – though it is mostly set in the classroom of a boys’ school in 1980s north of England.

We are asked to believe that the eight bright 18-year-olds being groomed for entry into Oxford or Cambridge are unaware of the surrounding pop culture but are steeped in movies, songs and entertainers popular long before they were born. And that they are nonchalant about taking turns to be groped by their teacher while riding pillion on his motorbike.

But it does work – and magnificently. The elements magically fuse into the richest, funniest and most moving play I have seen since Stoppard’s Arcadia. It’s the first masterpiece of the 21st century and we’re fortunate to see the original National Theatre production with Richard Griffiths unforgettable as the teacher who probably wants to be remembered as unforgettable.

In some respects Bennett has come full circle. His first play Forty Years On (1968) was also set in a school, and its headmaster prefers the word "schooling" to "education". He admonishes a young, progressive teacher for his tendency to put ideas into boys’ heads. The headmaster (Malcolm Sinclair) in The History Boys is more concerned with the school’s standing in the league tables (a 1990s invention), while Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), the young teacher brought in to achieve the improvement, uses cynicism and smart alec tricks to pass exams.

Opposing him is Hector, whose use-by date had long passed in Thatcherite Britain, who accuses him of educating the boys while he, Hector, gives them the will to resist. Mrs Lintott (Maggie Steed), the only woman, sees history, and presumably education, as masculine ineptitude.

The boys are beautifully brought to life with Dominic Cooper as sexual magnet Dakin and Samuel Barnett as Posner, the character probably most like the playwright, making the most of their lines and scenes. This is theatre at its best.


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