Tag Archives: Trafalgar Square

Another Country – Trafalgar Studios

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.

Bailey’s Stardust – National Portrait Gallery

Has there ever been a bad picture of Michael Caine? There must be – perhaps they’re all hidden under his bed – but the only ones you ever see, whether he’s 35 or 75, he is the epitome of cool – and no more so than in the giant Bailey photo that greets you in the ticket hall of the Portrait Gallery. Stardust celebrates more than 50 years of eclectic David Bailey photographs, from his early work in 1960s east London, through the crowd-pleasing celebrity and fashion shots, to documentary-style images of east Africa, India and Australia.

Bailey has photographed anyone who’s anyone and is perhaps most famous for the black and white shots of celebrities and artists which first greet you. U2, Kate Moss, Cecil Beaton, The Rolling Stones, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Hall, Paul McCartney, Jonny Depp, the list goes on. Like most portrait painters, Bailey largely presents a glamorised view of his subjects which make some of these photos feel like empty publicity shots. His trademark white background gets a bit repetitive at first, especially as it masks rather than enhances the personality of whichever celebrity is featured. But it’s in the more playful shots where you begin to appreciate Bailey’s skill; Ralph Fiennes shown against an entirely black background resting his head on a skull, or Marianne Faithful laying on the grass pictured at a twisted angle against a diagonal horizon, are particularly striking.

Another room deals with his fashion images, not just showcasing models like Marie Helvin, Jerry Hall and Jean Shrimpton, but also designers, editors and stylists. Bailey’s fascination with the personalities behind particular art forms is actually one of the most interesting elements of this exhibition, so there are photos of artists like Dali, Warhol, Bacon and Hockney, as well as other photographers like Cecil Beaton who appears repeatedly. These are people who are, to some extent, are usually obscured by their work but here become the art itself.

Bailey has also experimented with different techniques over the years, playing with colours, focus and exposure which give a nice variety to the many images on display here. And, surprisingly, some of the most effective are large camera-phone shots of clubs and theatres taken in 2013 which are bursting with colour and drama. These provide the perfect book-end to the fabulous images of people and decaying street life in the 1960s east end where Bailey grew up.  Large-scale prints of people happily drinking in old-school boozers sit next to bomb-damaged shops in a time before regeneration. What’s interesting about this collection is the mix of the glamorous and the ordinary; for every celebrity shot there’s a corresponding collection of images from community life around the world, of people who couldn’t be further from the pages of Vogue.

This is Bailey’s Stardust because you leave knowing more about him and the life he’s led than you do about any of the people you see on the walls. Not only is every picture personally selected and arranged by Bailey, but all around you is a visual biography of where he’s been, who he knew and what he believed in. That in itself is quite a fascinating approach, indicating that far from being the anonymous man behind the lens recording the lives of others, Bailey has been at the heart of popular culture for more than 50 years, which, like that enormous picture of Michael Caine, is pretty cool.

Bailey’s Stardust is at the National Portrait Gallery until 1st June. Tickets start at £16 with concessions available.

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