It wasn’t just the late, great photographer Ansel Adams who had a fondness for silver birch trees. For decades, their scarred and spindly trunks have been designers’ shorthand for Chekhov plays. Which, paradoxically, is why they’re to be seen toward the back of the set for Stephen Unwin’s intermittently engaging revival of Alan Bennett’s 1977 play “The Old Country.” Although one of the most English of plays, it’s set in a country estate in the Soviet Union.
Not that you would know it. Time appears to have stood still on the ancient, book-covered verandah of a house where elderly Hilary (Timothy West) sits in a rocking chair dozing to string music by Elgar. His wife, Bron (Jean Marsh), potters about and the two of them measure out the afternoon with a little light bickering as they await a rare tea-time visit from Hilary’s sister-in-law Veronica (Susan Tracy).
Nothing, it seems, is the least bit untoward until the much younger Eric (Tim Delap) and his sullen, angry wife, Olga (Rebecca Charles), appear, making ominous remarks about “the people.” But when Veronica and her newly knighted husband Duff (Simon Williams) finally show up, the veneer begins to crack and it gradually becomes clear that Hilary is a former spy who has defected. Cue arguments about betrayal and the virtues and vices of the country they left behind.
At one point, Duff mentions “Watership Down,” the 1972 hit novel about an intrepid band of rabbits written by Richard Adams, then a civil servant in the Dept. of the Environment. This play’s two government figures have sharply differing views on it. Well-meaning, cozily right-wing Duff loves it; ex-Foreign Office Hilary hasn’t read it but is unimpressed: “One detects the presence of allegory, which is always a slight deterrent.”
Bennett has no truck with the flatness of allegory. Although, like “Watership Down,” this is absolutely about Englishness, what you see in Bennett’s play is what you get. Or, rather, what you hear, because the writing is heavily dialogue-driven.
Asked by Duff to ponder the state he’s in, Hilary shrugs. “Put it this way: I’m not sorry it’s not Surrey.” As for his former home, “Is there anyone not embarrassed in England? The Queen, perhaps?”
His entertainingly grumpy skepticism about the country he betrayed is undercut by affection. “In England we never entirely mean what we say. Do I mean that? Not entirely.” Bennett has always been good at pastiche, and the wit spirals up into Wildean turns of phrase. “To be accused of something of which one is guilty, that’s the intolerable thing.”
Bennett himself is unofficially accorded Living National Treasure status in the U.K. for his plays, films and runaway bestseller diaries. Worryingly, many of the ideas Hilary espouses sound like variations on Bennett’s published autobiographical loves and loathings. What’s more, his subsequent spy plays — “A Question of Attribution” and “An Englishman Abroad” — are far stronger. Unwin’s revival makes this look like a dummy run.
The production is not only static, it lacks range and the casting is distinctly variable. West is a safe lynchpin, gruffly knocking out bon mots like a high-scoring but irascible batsman. He’s particularly good at subtly currying favor even as his character atrophies into selfishness.
Marsh is curiously underpowered as his wife, although she is equal to the task of eliciting sympathy for her forbearance when she confides to Veronica that she wishes she were Hilary’s widow: “So much more rewarding than being his wife.”
As Veronica, Tracy grabs every comic opportunity, twittering away with the peculiarly English polite enthusiasm that actually indicates disapproval. “You are lucky living so simply,” she sighs, insincerity setting like a meringue. “We would, but it’s too complicated.” Unfortunately, Tracy is partnered by the one-dimensional Williams, who barks his lines and fails to do anything with the late-arriving plotline suggesting hidden sexual duplicity that mirrors Hilary’s political behavior.
Toward the end, Duff reveals the door might be open for Hilary and Bron’s return. Suddenly, principles are put to the test and drama unexpectedly raises its head. The downside is that the lateness of its arrival signals the fact that the previous hour and a half has amounted to an intriguing setup followed by conversation.
That said, Bennett is so good on English mores — his perennial favorite topic, as the vastly superior, Broadway-bound “The History Boys” shows — because he genuinely wrestles with his subject’s contradictions. His mind is not made up, making his smartly written views tarter and funnier than any other dramatist’s.