Alan Bennett’s play about a traitor in exile is set entirely in a house in the middle of a forest. As Timothy West’s Hilary points out, it could be almost anywhere – maybe Scotland, maybe Surrey – but it is in Russia, where Hilary has been living for over a decade, exiled from the country that he betrayed. Matthew Amer joined the audience at the Trafalgar Studio 1 for yesterday’s press night of Bennett’s The Old Country.
Hilary’s home is less of a house and more of a hut; at its most glamorous John Gunter’s set reflects an alpine chalet, with trees climbing past the windows for good measure. Though he is in the middle of a Russian forest, Hilary has taken his England with him; he listens to Elgar and Vaughan Williams, sings his favourite hymns and is surrounded by books, many of them first editions. He shares his enforced holiday home with long-suffering wife Bron (Jean Marsh), who wants to want to leave him, but can’t.
Into their world come Hilary’s sister Veronica – played by Susan Tracy in a suitably pink floral dress as the perfect well-to-do snob – and her newly knighted husband Duff (Simon Williams), a pompous, long-winded, lecturing academic and establishment man. They’ve just dropped in for a visit.
As Duff and Veronica talk about the England they live in, it becomes apparent that both couples are in a form of exile; both are exiled from the England they recognise, an England that doesn’t exist any more due partly to the march of time. As Duff explains to Hilary’s neighbour, a young exile called Eric (Tim Delap) who is eager to return home, “I’m 56; you’re in Russia”.
Bennett reflects on English irony, the nature of exile and home, blending the poignancy of longing for a lost England with trademark humour which includes Hilary’s observation that Johnnie Walker could join a club entitled Alcoholics Eponymous, or, with Jack Daniels, Alcoholics Synonymous.
Duff and Veronica’s visit, however, is not as social as it might seem, and Hilary is left to decide where home really is; the geographical England or the one he has created in Russia.
The Old Country plays at Trafalgar Studio 1 until 6 May.