Theatre Critique: History Boys at the McManus Studio Theatre
The History Boys, a British play written by Alan Bennet, follows the story of a group of male history pupils from the north of England who are training for their entrance exams into prestigious colleges Oxford and Cambridge. This play, though full of witty banter, youthful liveliness and humorous quips, also contains poignant lines about the value of an artistic education and questions regarding whether education is somehow lost in the process of its institutionalization. Another central theme of the play is finding one’s identity, both sexually and intellectually, and how to represent oneself to get the opportunity to make a mark on society. While viewing the live production at McManus Studio Theatre, I was struck most by the acting, set design, and special effects. While I found the multi-media film clips rather distracting, the production more than redeemed itself with the actors’ insightful understandings of their complicated roles and the clever use of the space to create a school environment.
In the play, the classroom plays a central role in the plot, as well as the headmaster’s office, so I was curious to see how the stage design would be able to switch back and forth between the two. In this production, however, the set never changed; for both halves of the performance, the center was dedicated to the classroom setting, with two large shared student desks in the front and center, Hector’s desk and a chalkboard towards the back, and on the front stage left, a podium with an encyclopedia (a symbol, perhaps of the “general studies” these boys were allegedly taught) and an upright piano. On the front stage right, two armchairs were tucked cozily together, a perfect eloquent suggestion of a teacher’s office. On the upper side walls, classroom doors stuck out partially open to suggest that we were in the midst of a hallway of identical classrooms, perhaps evoking the students’ internal existential crisis of trying to stand out in a sea of identical (if not superiorly educated) students all vying for the same spots in university.
The stage design brings me to the special effects element of the production: while most of the scenes take place in the classroom, a number of scenes that occur outside such as Hector’s rides on his motorcycle, and the students’ trip to Oxford. I was interested to see how these difficulties might be addressed -- perhaps a silhouette of a motorcycle ride would take place behind a silkscreen, with sound effects of a motorcycle. What I discovered was large screens placed on the upper back wall, designed to resemble overlapping polaroid photographs, upon which projections of pre-filmed footage were played in between most every scene. While I understand the use of film to depict Hector’s outdoor motorcycle rides, the film projections were used even only to depict indoor scenes like a crowded hallway, a study montage, or a humorous snippet focusing on the secretary’s attractiveness. Interestingly, despite the many scenes that were filmed, there was no visual component for the one scene I was anticipating: the trip to Cambridge; instead, the boys only recounted their touring experiences after the fact, without more visual than a spotlight. While my peers seemed to enjoy the multimedia experience, I found switching forth between these two mediums to be very jarring, because a viewer’s expectations of realism and acting styles must understandably adjust between the two media; While an actor’s emphasized gestures and speech may be endearing and necessary for the stage, the same acting style (i.e. over pronounced gestures and speech) often do not translate well to the screen without proper training for acting for the screen, and can come across a bit saccharine. It was especially confusing at times when both would be in motion at the same time, and a student depicted only seconds earlier studying outdoors was now onscreen. For a lover of the theatre, I feel part of the magic of the theatre is the creative problem solving within the confines of the stage, and the willful suspension of belief that comes with it on the part of the audience. If we were seeking cinematic realism, we would have rented the movie.
The acting was exceptional, both on the part of the students and the faculty. One of the performers who stood out was the actor who played Felix since he hit the ground running with his delightful Nigel Thornberry-esque tone of voice that represented his character’s boisterous spirit exceptionally well. Though Dorothy’s character might have felt slightly contrived at the very start, she seemed much more comfortable throughout the show and brought down the house during her feminist monologue with her vibrant stage presence and ease of articulation. I felt that Hector’s portrayal was a bit too over the top for the first half of the play, although he showed a much more subtle and conflicted side to his character after the intermission. I appreciated Rudge and Posner’s original and effective interpretations of their characters from their own personal experiences; in the question-answer segment of the night, after the show, they discussed their struggles to differentiate their characters from the film, one by studying the film for understanding before diverging creatively, and the other by refusing to watch it altogether. Dakin was also wonderful to watch; his confident ease of movement and his smooth way of talking had the audience hanging on his every word. Scripps was perhaps one of the more difficult characters to portray, since as the actor admitted in the interview session, his was a complicated mix of performer and passive observer: most times he was present as a fly on the wall, sometimes just listening, sometimes breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, and sometimes he simply played snippets of piano pieces (which as a music major he does exceptionally well). I think his musical skills brought something unique that added a lovely touch to the overall tone of the show.
In sum, while I might have some creative differences with the multi-media aspect of the show, the acting and set design were really spectacular and well-suited for the scope of this show, which was an overall highly entertaining performance. I especially recommend this show to students who are dealing or have dealt with applications to any form of higher education, since this play is, as Hector describes the best part of reading, “a hand … com[ing] out” from the script “and tak[ing] yours” when it demonstrates that even in 1980s England, students were still beating against the same struggle between education for its own sake versus fitting into standardized testing and standing out in a standardized system. The show is playing at McManus Studio Theatre from October 11-15.