‘Will there be inkwells?’ someone asked as we waited outside the Courtyard Studio theatre. Sure enough, we were soon ushered inside with the all-too-familiar ‘Can I have two straight lines please boys and girls?’ and took our places at pairs of school desks covered with graffiti. Almost immediately, we began our transformation from theatre audience to school-aged rabble in preparation for Stephen Fry’s Latin! Or Tobacco and Boys.
Written in 1980, Latin! channels Fry’s much-loved wit and camp cheekiness into the world of Chartham Park Preparatory School for boys. Our two teachers, Dominic Clarke and Herbert Brookshaw, are about as far from model educators as you can imagine. When the pipe-chewing, near-fossilised Brookshaw discovers that the younger Clarke has been engaging in ‘gentle acts’ with one of his thirteen-year-old charges, he can only be bribed to keep his silence with promises of bi-weekly spankings in his study.
Needless to say, this is humour at its least PC, and it does take a while to become completely convinced that laughing at the exploits of these two hideous characters is actually an acceptable thing to do. Luckily, Duncan Driver (Clarke) and Oliver Baudert (Brookshaw) are both so committed to and convincing in their roles that there’s really no other option than to giggle along and hope Mr Clarke doesn’t turn his attention towards you.
Baudert, who actually attended two English boarding schools in the early 1940s and describes his role in Latin! as the most terrifying stage experience of his life, creates some wonderful moments – his unintentionally vulgar blackboard explanations and a truly hilarious monologue that finishes the play. Driver’s delivery of Fry’s razor-sharp insults to his students is pitch-perfect, and while he’s certainly never supposed to be seen as sympathetic, Driver does manage to keep Mr Clarke bizarrely fascinating as he attempts to justify his relationship with his student.
As this production is a two-hander with its audience sitting in place of the students, there were a few moments when naughtiness took over and people attempted to answer Mr Clarke’s questions on the intricacies of Latin grammar. To his credit, Driver didn’t let this throw him off course, either improvising his way out or simply charging ahead. As our Latin lessons progressed, the role of student became less easy to escape, with the worst performing ‘boy’ beginning to slouch over his desk, and a palpable sense of tension arising when Mr Clarke kept us in after the bell.
Everyman Theatre have obviously launched into staging this production with gusto, and they are to be commended for choosing Latin! over something safer. As director Jarrad West notes, ‘some comedy is meant to shock people, and Latin! is part of that’. This particular production is nearing the end of its run, but with luck, Everyman Theatre's next will be something just as daring and entertaining.
Everyman Theatre presents
Latin! or Tobacco and Boys
by Stephen Fry
Directed by Jarrad West
Venue: The Courtyard Studio
Dates: 18 - 27 June, 2009
Prices: Adults $20.00; Concession $15.00
This play contains adult themes and obscene language.