South Downs and The Browning Version @ Harold Pinter theatre
Alexander Pope, according to Basil Spear, Master of English in David Hare’s South Downs, is the greatest English poet ever known and is responsible for removing from the poet any burden of originality. Call me crazy, and apologies to Mr Pope, but I don’t think that’s a good thing. Originality, imagination, new thinking and the space in which to explore are the qualities that I think should be valued not only in a poem or a poet, but in everyone.
Not so at South Downs, where Spear rules the English roost and tradition is the order of the day. What to do then, if rather than worship at the altar – metaphorical or not – of convention one looks beyond the school gates? At just 14, pupil and unwilling stooge John Blakemore’s attempts to rewrite the rules are rejected, stifled and punished. Thrown into an unwelcome environment, he struggles not just to make friends with others but to make friends with himself. Youth, we are reminded, is not the same as immaturity and from a shaky start to a smiling conclusion we see Blakemore find his feet. Freed, ironically, from the burden of tradition he can at last imagine a future outside of the cage. Alex Lawther gives an excellent performance as Blakemore, well supported by Jonathan Bailey as Duffield and Nicholas Farrell as the Reverend Eric Dewley, a man perhaps not as comfortable with tradition as he would like to be.
Farrell returns to give a truly astonishing performance as Andrew Crocker-Harris, a man of the Classics and traditions older than the world we live in. He rules his classroom with the proverbial rod of iron while, at home, rules are broken, and Crocker-Harris with them. Like South Downs, The Browning Version is a portrait first and foremost of the loneliness that inflicts itself upon our two protagonists, stemming from the realisation that one’s own self-image is not what is seen by everyone else. Watching Crocker-Harris is much like watching Blakemore; both searching for their place and being shown the way. As Blakemore is championed by the prefect Duffield, Crocker-Harris is buoyed by a most unlikely combination: first, a pupil, Taplow – a lovely performance from Liam Morton – and then an adulterer. Make what you will of Crocker Harris’ wife’s cruelty but I choose to remember Taplow’s kindness simply as an act that reminds an ageing fellow why he chose the path he did. Frank Hunter’s contribution is ambiguous, while Mark Umbers as Frank Hunter does well to lend a certain sympathy to the relationship between the men.
As the curtain closes, Crocker-Harris, like Blakemore, is smiling. He has not won, not by a long shot, but he is no longer losing quite as badly. As he leaves that place of rules and humiliation, we are reminded that perhaps the most revolutionary action of all might be the act of kindness that brings a tear to the eye and opens the door to the future.