Sunday, 12 November 2017

Theatre review: Quaint Honour

This review is brought to you by codeine – I put my back out again on Saturday, and if I hadn’t got it under control by Sunday I’d have had to miss what might be the Finborough’s best rediscovery in years. The theatre’s official contribution to the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Roger Gellert’s Quaint Honour dates from a decade earlier, and is set in the location with perhaps the most ambiguous attitude to relationships between men: An all-boys’ boarding school. Sexual relationships between the pupils are of course strictly forbidden, but not quite so strictly policed – perhaps because the staff know the can of worms they’d be opening. But Head Prefect Park (Oliver Gully) is on a personal crusade to root out which of the boys are sleeping with each other. He hopes his deputy, Tully (Harley Viveash) will help him, but Tully thinks he’s imagining the problem.

Of course, the real reason Tully doesn’t want the issue looked into is that he’s been enthusiastically seducing the younger pupils himself, and his relationship with his fag* Turner (Jacques Miche) is overtly sexual. It’s Turner who dares Tully to seduce a particularly challenging first-year, the timid loner Hamilton (Jack Archer.) Encouraging him to audition for the role of Lady Anne in his upcoming school production of Richard III, Tully uses the power play of Richard’s twisted seduction scene to get Hamilton into bed for real. It both succeeds and backfires, though, as Tully finds himself genuinely falling in love with the younger boy. Christian Durham’s production is excellent and should take much of the credit for the evening’s success, but although verbose Gellert’s play itself comes out of this very well.

In fact it’s quite amazing that Quaint Honour was first performed while all gay sex was illegal (its 1958 premiere was at the Arts Theatre, then technically a private club so it could avoid censorship,) not just in its sympathetic portrayal but in its lightness of touch: Opening with the classic comic setpiece of the House Master, Hallowes (Simon Butteriss) delivering a birds-and-bees talk (Turner enjoys the teacher’s awkwardness so much he’s been to it multiple times,) it mostly plays out as a comedy. In fact the transposing of a classic text into a school setting put me in mind of a ‘90s American high school comedy, except gay and in the ‘50s (although I imagine if anyone tried to give the She’s All That treatment to Richard III for real it might go… a bit wrong.)

Gellert looks at a complex power structure that turns teenagers’ natural instincts against them; in the current climate it’s easy to see this as a play about grooming (from a modern standpoint, the way Tully seduces Hamilton would be called negging, an extra element of discomfort added to that scene,) but if the “victim” is 15, it’s hard to come down too hard on his seducer when he’s only 17. The entire school system is the villain here, the power dynamic between people only two years apart artificially created, and the only adult we see is a model of hypocrisy: The superficially kindly Hallowes readily admits that throwing confused hormonal boys into an environment without women will turn their affections onto each other, but is unforgiving of them actually doing anything about those feelings.

Durham’s production is excellently cast, with Butteriss providing just this ambiguity in a character who’s essentially a punchline, and as such fails entirely in his position as sole authority figure. Gully brings a real vicious single-mindedness to Park, who, having received unwanted advances when he was younger, has turned his anger into a witch-hunt Tully regularly compares to the Inquisition. As the younger boys there’s a real contrast between Archer and Miche but also an essential similarity: Hamilton is liberated by his relationship with Tully, and the overtly sexual Turner is the natural extreme of this, uninhibitedly groping Tully the second they’re alone together, yet never doubting that once he leaves this artificial environment his interest in other boys will naturally transfer to women.

The real find here is Harley Viveash though: Tully is an abrasive character, prone to making long speeches and with the aforementioned aggressive seduction technique. The sheer energy Viveash gives him combines with a natural charm to make us see why he would, in fact, have the younger boys fall for him despite all that. He then becomes the emotional heart of the play as his feelings for Hamilton make him come to terms with the fact that he might be one of the boys who don’t end up transferring their feelings to girls when they leave school.

It’s this recognition that the story has a resonance outside of its enclosed world that makes Quaint Honour feel like quite a significant part of the history of queer theatre, and the fact that it’s been forgotten until now surprising. I’d say this deserves a wider audience than the Finborough’s Sunday-Tuesday alternate slot, but the fact that four years on there’s still no sign of Armstrong’s War resurfacing means I won’t be holding my breath. Although he wrote adaptations and worked in other ways in theatre, it’s Gellert’s sole original play, which feels a real shame; hopefully Durham, Viveash and everyone else who’s brought it so successfully back to life are names we’ll be hearing more of.

Quaint Honour by Roger Gellert is booking in repertory until the 21st of November at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli.

*for the benefit of Americans and other aliens, a fag is a first-year student in a boarding school who’s allocated to be essentially a manservant to one of the older boys. No, I don’t understand it, I just know what it is from having seen it crop up in stories like this one.

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