This play, with a cast of two, has three characters. The junior teacher, the senior teacher, and the schoolboys in their charge. The audience, unwittingly taking the part of the latter, is effectively drawn into the action of the piece as a result of skilful direction of Fiamma Mazzocchi Alemanni. Wanting the audience to feel put ‘on the spot’, she asked me to take a seat in what would have been the front row of a classroom. Addressed soon afterwards as ‘Cartwright’, and pointedly asked what I was ‘smirking at’ by the principal actor, I felt suitably uncomfortable and very much put ‘on the spot’.
The press preview of Latin! or Tobacco and Boys, a play written by Stephen Fry in 1979, marked a promising beginning to the life of this production. The setting of a preparatory school provides the perfect location for this witty, yet dark, drama. Here, the stifling atmosphere of scholastic innocence nurtures the illicit sexual practices of Dominic Clarke (Barnabas Iley-Williamson), the younger schoolmaster, for whom ‘pleasure, […], lies between the thighs of a young boy, under 15, blonde, and willing.’ His additional scheme of one day owning the school projects his desire into the future.
The authority which emanates from Clarke’s every word in the first classroom scene continues to define his character throughout the subsequent dialogue, in which Brookshaw, the senior teacher (Louis Fletcher), hints at his knowledge of Clarke’s sexual escapades with the above-mentioned Cartwright, a pupil at the school. This scene reveals Clarke’s complex character, expertly conveyed to the audience by Iley-Williamson. The physical and emotional bullying undergone by Clarke as a youngster himself, fuels his desire: ‘I never forgave them for fracturing my spirit’, he declares.
Fletcher, portraying Brookshaw, and in contrast to a very convincing performance by Iley-Williamson, could have inhabited his role slightly more. Both actors, however, delivered their lines faultlessly. The tempo was a little slow in places (most notably throughout the dialogue), but the whole play was carried along well by the brilliant script. Mazzochi Alemanni’s direction made certain that there was no lack of attention to detail. Clarke’s most explicit suggestion to his sexual preferences, for example, is pronounced with his back to the audience. Despite his frank lack of shame, he remains essentially uneasy about his behaviour.
At times, the light-hearted script makes this play easily digestible. At others, it points to murkier themes outside the limits of respectability. A preview of the piece was enough to ascertain that this production had truly done justice to Fry’s piece.