The story of the Cambridge Five is one of the most absorbing tales of the twentieth-century. The scale of their treachery, betraying British secrets to Russia from the 1930s until the 1960s is almost impressive, especially given their senior placements in the Secret Intelligence Sevice (MI6), Foreign Office and even the Queen’s Household. Historians today claim that mentioning Kim Philby’s name in the secret services still elicits outrage and disgust for a man who not only betrayed his country, but also those in the intelligence community who considered him a friend. Why men who enjoyed every privilege, from Eton to Cambridge to ‘Establishment’ jobs, sided with Russia has fascinated us since the early 1950s when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected, followed by Philby himself in 1963.
Julian Mitchell’s 1981 play ‘Another Country’ imagines the 1930s public schooldays of Guy Burgess (here known as Guy Bennett) and supposes the root of his decision to spy lie in the semi-petty politics of an all-boys boarding school. Written shortly after Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was unveiled as the fifth man in the Cambridge spy-ring, the play is concerned with how the betrayal of friends on a small scale may sow the seed of something considerably more serious in later years. It opens with the suicide of a young student after being caught in a compromising position with another boy and follows the story of Bennett, an openly homosexual pupil, and his classmate Judd, a Marxist.
This is a pitiless Lord of the Flies society in which older boys manage the behaviour of their houses, dolling out brutal punishments for transgressions. Only one adult appears in the entire play, a visiting liberal uncle, a charismatic cameo from Julia Wadham, who has tea with the boys and becomes the moral centrepiece of this little society, arguing that there can be no certainty, and doubt should be the basis of all action. However, the boys running the school act with absolute moral certainty that they have the right to impose their will through the appointment of prefects and entry into the elite invitation-only 22 group. The absence of adult guidance only serves to reinforce the idea that each generation sends it boys into the ‘Establishment’ to run the country, and by using some indefinable criteria exclude those who don’t quite fit.
Bennett is well liked and, although indiscrete about his many assignations, is very much part of the ruling elite of the school. His counterpart Judd meanwhile remains a self-determined outsider until his support is needed and both boys are welcomed then rebuffed by those willing to go to any lengths to maintain the shape of their little world. Mitchell suggests it is this notion of friendly betrayal, of being jollied along and cast aside even by those he’s been close to that is the reason Bennett (aka Burgess) betrayed his country – revenge against those who used him.
Rob Callender is very good as Guy Bennett, suggesting the exuberance and self-assurance that Burgess was later known for. It’s a nuanced performance too capturing the fears and callowness of young men who think they have figured-out the world, and surprised when it comes tumbling down. Will Attenborough’s Tommy Judd is a nice contrast, calm and certain of his Communist convictions, but his loftiness is challenged by a need to participate in the School’s politicking. Mention should also be made of Mark Quartley as Barclay, the Head of House who reaches breaking point, unable to forgive himself for the suicide that opens the play.
It’s strange that the publicity team advertise it as the play that launched Kenneth Branagh and Rupert Everett considering neither of them appears here – I can’t imagine the Barbican promoting their forthcoming Hamlet as previously starring David Tennant, Rory Kinnear and Jude Law! It’s hardly fair to the pretty good set of young actors in this version who may have lengthy careers ahead of them. Whether this play sheds light on the motivation of a key member of the Cambridge Five is interesting to debate, but it’s certainly unabashed in its exploration of public school cruelty in the 1930s. As a microcosm of the Establishment many of its pupils became part of, is it possible to understand why a few chose espionage and betrayal instead?
Another Country runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 21June. Ticket prices start from £19.50, although Last Minute had them from £16 when I booked.