The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of The History Boys, a new play by Alan Bennett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Designer Bob Crowley. Lighting designer Mark Henderson. Music by Richard Sisson. Video director Ben Taylor. Sound designer Colin Pink. Cast: Samuel Anderson, Joseph Attenborough, Tom Attwood, Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Frances de la Tour, Rudi Dharmalingam, Sacha Dhawan, Richard Griffiths, Colin Haigh, Andrew Knott, Pamela Merrick, Clive Merrison, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jamie Parker, Russell Tovey.
Let it be known that your enjoyment of The History Boys will not be affected by your ability (or inability) to recall, interpret, or decipher dense facts about names, places, and dates. Alan Bennett's amazing play, which had its smash premiere two years ago at London's National Theatre and has arrived at the Broadhurst with its original cast, asks you simply to feel.
Well, and laugh - a lot. And, okay, think - a little.
But you don't need to ponder too deeply theories about the proper role of education in the modern world. Nor do you need to understand the workings of the British school system, against which the show takes place. The History Boys deals handily with these topics, and like most good plays manages to not get bogged down in them. But like most great plays, they're not its primary focus: It's instead concerned with the far more intricate (and interesting) workings of the human heart.
What we pursue, what drives us toward it, what we let stand in our way, and what the eventual outcome means to our lives, now and in the future, are Bennett's true subjects; it's ironic that of all the things the play is about, the past isn't really one of them. The play is set in the past, though: Specifically, the mid 1980s, at a grammar school (the English equivalent of a high school) where eight young men in their final semester are preparing for university exams - generally for Oxford or Cambridge - by brushing up on their preferred subject, history.
Their education of it has traditionally consisted of being force fed facts by the stern Mrs. Lintott (the divinely dry Frances de la Tour), tempered by English teacher Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths), who sees education as the way to guide the heart and mind to maturity. He'll foster fluency in French, for example, by having students reenact an evening at a bordello. Or he'll drill them on poetry and old movies, encouraging them to memorize whole passages and scenes, and quote them at will. Piano playing and singing are regular classtime activities.
The school's latest arrival, Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a temporary contract teacher, is a strict pragmatist who sees learning as the means to an end: Information must be presented in surprising, controversial, and entertaining ways that will land you whatever you're after - typically a good school or a good job. This, perhaps predictably, leaves the boys conflicted about whether they should embrace Irwin's instant-gratification philosophy or pursue Hector's more intangible course.
But that's not enough to satisfy the sublimely sensitive Bennett. All this just serves as the basis for exploring the intertwining relationships are really what make The History Boys special, and which director Nicholas Hytner has helped the company's actors hone to piercing perfection. The bewitching father-son dynamic between Hector and the boys that grows deeper (and scarier) as we learn more about everyone. The lively complexities of the Hector-Irwin rivalry, which play themselves out in unexpected ways as the boys unconsciously start taking sides. And, of course, the interplay between the boys themselves, engrossingly as heavy on camaraderie as it is genial one-upmanship of both the educational and sexual kind.
All this and more Bennett weaves into a delicate tapestry of a play that recklessly sacrifices sheer plot for emotional richness, but delivers an upending theatrical punch not comparable to most plays this season, but at least on par with last season's triumphant heavy hitters, Doubt and The Pillowman. The performances are thus in keeping, though I'm apprehensive about singling out anyone for fear of giving the impression that any cast member is less than superb.
Griffiths, however, does deserve special mention for his ability to bring a towering ordinariness to Hector that makes him into one of the most compelling tragic figure this side of Oedipus or Willy Loman. Boisterous when happy or even just mischievous, and heartbreaking as his carefully constructed world falls apart, Griffiths maps the full life story of a man who gives everything he has - in some, very particular, cases, too much - to his students, as "insurance against the boys' ultimate failure." In Griffith's portrayal, we see in every look, hear in every word, a man continually battling the random forces of history, but who is himself not immune to them; Griffiths is unquestionably giving the performance of the season in what is unquestionably the role of the season.
As for the boys, Dominic Cooper is a knockout as Dakin, the darkly charismatic, sexual mastermind of the group, who uses his powers to overwhelm his classmates - female and male - as well as the occasional teacher; and Samuel Barnett portrays the Jewish, and possibly gay, student who's obsessed with Dakin with a winning, youthful passion. But the others - Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Anderson, Andrew Knott, Russell Tovey, Jamie Parker, and James Corden - define their characters no less vividly, whether as major players or with just a handful of lines.
This kind of attention to detail isn't quite reflected in the sets or costumes by Bob Crowley or the lights by Mark Henderson, all of which are professional but unexceptional. But the extensive, cinematic video sequences (by Ben Taylor), which play during scene changes and help establish the character of the school itself, and Richard Sisson's driving music, join practically every other element in heralding the production as its own one-of-a-kind event.
And that it is, in this season or any other. How much history the play itself makes remains to be seen. But The History Boys, which is playing only through September 3, is one of those plays that simply must be seen before it becomes history itself.