This weekend, the nation’s favorite play is going up in the Byre Theatre: The History Boys. This play chronicles the life of a group of students as they revise for their Oxbridge entrance exams, and the teachers who help get them there. I got the chance to ask the director of this piece, Harrison Roberts, a few questions about why he loves the play so much and what the play means in a more modern context.
Why History Boys?
HR: I have always admired Alan Bennett’s work, and as a history student, The History Boys was the most relatable play of all his works. In all seriousness, the entire idea of directing and putting the production on was a dream that was deeply buried in my mind with no intention of ever becoming reality. Nevertheless, with much encouragement from certain individuals and after a swift half hour in Aikman’s Cellar Bar, an ambition was to become a real project. In addition, I did question, if I didn’t do it now, when would I ever get another opportunity.
You’re a first time director: How have you enjoyed the process thus far?
HR: There have been great times of difficulty and frustration, yet altogether the process has been very enjoyable and one that I shall forever cherish.
One of the struggles of working in the Byre is that you don’t get to actually use the space until a few days before. How have you tried to get around that in your directing?
HR: This is a factor that I have struggled with most. The majority of our rehearsals have either been in the Barron or the Union, so it has been a question of trying to utilize space in accordance to what we have to play within the Byre. Therefore it has really been a question of giving the actors a very basic framework to work with and then readjusting to work with what we get on the move-in day. Of course, it is not ideal, yet it adds to the excitement of the show coming together.
What has your favorite moment been with the cast so far?
HR: My favorite moment with the cast must be the whole week we spent together before the start of term, in the middle of January. Though the Barron was cold and we had to make do with blankets, I very much looked forward to the daily routine and socializing afterward, and of course the various improvised piano pieces on the out-of-tune Barron piano by everyone in the cast. That is something I greatly missed once classes started again, and something I shall treasure very much.
How do you think the message of the History Boys has changed in the context of the #MeToo movement and the sexual abuse stories of the past year?
HR: Bennett as an author has always approached and discussed very serious and controversial matters of life in his work, regardless of the fact that he is viewed as the traditional, naïve and gentle British writer. Of course, when the original production was on stage in the National Theatre, the entire Hector storyline added the element of seriousness and tragedy to the play. In the course of current events, I think we are able to reflect upon the narrative of the play in a much more relatable and questionable light. Perhaps, rather sadly, Bennett was forward-thinking in discussing a matter that continues to be an issue in society, and one that has been ignored for too long.
So you’re most famous for your work with Blind Mirth – how has that improv focus showed itself in the process for you?
HR: I think to the annoyance of the cast, there have been moments where I have tried to add elements of spontaneity into certain scenes with some encouragement of certain lines being ad lib and perhaps my warm-ups have come from my improv bag. Nevertheless, I have tried very hard to keep the two worlds apart.
Who would make the best dinner party guests out of the characters in the cast?
HR: I must be biased and say Hector. I had a teacher who was very similar to Hector in School, yet at the time I did not appreciate him, however, now with the benefit of hindsight, I believe he would make great company for a dinner party and would make the evening. Plus, I imagine having very interesting conversations with Hector about Brief Encounter and Auden, a weak spot to capture my heart and interest.
If you could sum up why you should see the play in a sentence, what would you say?
HR: This play has the correct balance between charming comedy and the ability to make one question and reflect upon life, yet to the extent that one is left feeling slightly better and is unable to resist the necessity to smile at life.
The History Boys is on this weekend at the Byre Theatre at 7:30. Tickets are 8 pounds, and are going fast, so buy soon!