Lessons in conformity


Plays, a film and visual art – the Festival this year is littered with reflections on school. Headlining the trend is The History Boys. The first South African production of Alan Bennett’s award-winning play, is about a group of boys preparing to sit their Oxbridge entrance exam. Three different teachers with divergent teaching styles, history, sex, music, poetry, words and literature – the play, which has been a smash hit across the world, has it all.

“It all begins at school,” says director Alan Swerdlow. For the young men of The History Boys, anything seems possible if they can just master the game of the exam. “The first time we put on the uniforms, we all started acting like we were in high school again, throwing stuff around the room,” says Jeremy Richard, who plays the character of Timms.

For the eight young members of the cast, getting back into uniform represents an adolescent mischievousness regained – a return to their schoolboy selves. Bennett’s depiction of school is full of potential, full of promise; his characters are overflowing with the electric combination of factual knowledge, culture and wit. But Bennett is far from creating an innocent, idealistic portrayal of school and future possibility. “Bennett looks at the world as it is, not as it should be,” says Swerdlow.

The theme of eccentric teaching follows through in Death of a Colonialist, directed by Craig Freimond. Set in a Grahamstown high school, it tells the story of an erratic but passionate history teacher, played by Jamie Bartlett, and how his life starts to unravel.

Unlike Bennett, whose hand is delicate but savage, playwright Greg Latter is brutal in his confrontation of what it means to teach history and yet whichever way it’s done the teacher will make an impact. “I found it very difficult toeing the line at school, but I did form the most wonderful relationships with some of my teachers. They have never left my life. They are indelible; they underpin the cement of my life. They sear an impression into you!” said Bartlett.

In another story close to home, Spud: the Movie is featured on this year’s Filmfest programme. As a South African period piece, it tells the story of a group of young boys starting school, rather than finishing it. In both works, characters drive the stories and everyone will identify with a type – the joker, the academic, the outsider. These stories take us back to our younger selves, to the people we once were, to the ideas we had of what we could be.

In these productions, the school is a place of controlled rebellion, a space in which to push the boundaries, with somewhat manageable consequences.

Rhodes Fine Art MFA student, Mark Farmer, uses casual transgressions in the uniforms of local Kingswood students – an untied shoelace and a loose tie – to ignite a sense of the small rebellions against disciplinary structures and conformity in his works on the Wet Paint! exhibition.

Death of a Colonialist is at the Rhodes Theatre today at 12pm and 6.30pm
Spud is at Olive Schreiner Hall, Monument today at 6.15pm
Wet Paint! is at Albany History Museum daily