THE HISTORY BOYS
Following on the heels of Doubt at the Stanley, the Arts Club continues its season-opening success with The History Boys at its Granville Island Stage. Director Dean Paul Gibson delivers one of the best all-around productions in recent memory, although Alan Bennett’s remarkably intelligent and very funny play may be just a little too literate for its own good.
A theatrical debate about education and educational philosophies, The History Boys pits subversive, charismatic old literature master Hector (Bernard Cuffling), who believes only in knowledge for its own sake, against flashy, pragmatic history teacher Irwin (Kirk Smith), brought in to make the boys in this northern English prep school more competitive in their admission exams for Oxford and Cambridge. The Headmaster (Duncan Fraser) and the more traditional history teacher (Jane Noble) chime in with their own views.
But the central character and real star of the show is the ensemble of eight boys who make up the class: the strutting alpha-male (Charlie Carrick), the little Jewish guy (Daniel Karasik), the jock (Kyle Cameron), and five others (played by Pablo Silveira, Vincent Tong, Daniel Johnston, Danny Coleman, and Gord Myren) somewhat less clearly individualized. None is even remotely a cliché. In fact they make up probably the smartest group of boys you’ll ever hear on stage or anywhere else. And their acting is astonishingly good right across the board.
The same virtues apply to the adult characters. Cuffling unleashes one of the strongest performances of his distinguished career as the nonconformist Hector, whose educational techniques turn his classroom into an extraordinary learning environment, but whose homosexual tendencies get him into trouble. Bennett’s script refuses in any way to melodramatize or sentimentalize the character. Hector is a complicated man and everyone reacts to him in complicated ways. Hector’s antagonist, Irwin, is no less intellectually or humanly complex. And all these actors deliver sterling performances.
Gibson’s exhilarating production clips along with the help of Ted Roberts’ set pieces, gliding fluidly together and apart in the scene changes, accompanied by Brian Linds’ dynamic, imaginative soundtrack.
Even so, the show comes in at almost three hours—nearly all of it highly literate, intellectual talk. Hector’s students pepper their speeches with extensive quotations from Shakespeare, Auden, Phillip Larkin, Ludwig Wittgenstein. One entire scene debates the meaning of the Holocaust. Another deconstructs a Thomas Hardy poem. This is intellectually stimulating, but extremely challenging. Some audience members might find a lot of it just bla bla bla.And if this is what the English equivalent of a Grade 12 class is really like, the Canadian educational system has a long way to go.