Australia’s much-loved veteran actor John Wood stars as Douglas Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, opening at the Sydney Opera House this week.

Taking a break from rehearsals, he talks to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

John WoodAs the interview begins actor John Wood seems somewhat distracted. Perhaps it is the January heat, I think.

Wood is currently rehearsing for the role of Douglas Hector; the English General Studies Teacher with roving ‘inappropriate’ hands in Alan Bennett’s feted 2004 play The History Boys. He has just finished another long summer’s day in what sounds like an airless rehearsal room. Wood is pleased there is a gentle afternoon breeze wafting outside when we settle into the interview, “That’s better”, he croons with relief.

I quickly learn that Wood, one of Australia’s most recognised actors of stage and screen, is also a gifted raconteur. When I ask him what happened in rehearsal room during the preceding eight hours he seems to forget whatever it is that has been distracting him and recounts the proceedings of the day in vivid detail.

“Singing in French, today, yes, I have been singing in French. I have been teaching the boys, all highly intelligent boys, poetry. It’s a wonderful piece of writing this play; Bennett has such a great sense of the written word, but singing in French, and that is really hard for such an Aussie boy like me. In fact the play is a complex play, it’s what I call a hard learn, so many layers of dialogue to learn, layers upon layers, singing in French, poetry, answering the deluge of questions posed to Hector by his students, Hector is one for inspiring the students with poetry, learning the layers of banter, the asides by the students, all wonderfully written, amazingly written in fact, but a hard learn.”

“And it’s a delightful rehearsal room”, he continues, “large, roomy, filled with light, highly polished parquetry floors, it is a place that has a few stories of its own to tell I suspect, it is good for what we are doing, this play is as physical as it is witty. And the windows overlook a school yard, I was watching the schoolchildren playing games, scrambling along monkey bars, and,“ he pauses reflectively, “I found myself thinking that I should be spending more time with my grandchildren.”

It is no surprise that Wood is so seized by the schoolyard just beyond, young school students in the early years of learning in the days of innocence. The History Boys is a play also set in a School, Cutler’s Grammar School; a fictional Grammar School in Sheffield in the North of England during the early 1980’s, albeit older students well into their adolescence. And as the play unfolds it charts the journey of these students, years after the monkey bars and games of innocence are over, the hormones are slam dancing and they set upon the brink of a great tomorrow, frantically preparing for their Cambridge and Oxford entrance examinations.

“It’s a story we can all relate too”, says Wood of the play’s setting, “we were all at school once and we spent a good deal of our young lives there and so much happened when we were at school. So I guess there is a certain nostalgia appeal to the play. People can reflect about the things they did and didn’t do, the things they did very well, those small and those big successes.People seeing the play can relate to some of the things the characters in the play do and say, yes, I remember I did something like that and I did it very well, I’d forgotten that.“

We chat about Alan Bennett plays, his consummate skill with characterisation and in particular the role of Hector and what Wood finds challenging about this particularly complex Bennett character.

"Well to be honest there were a whole raft of things I didn’t understand about Hector when I first read the script and now with time I have to assume that he is a closet queen, someone who has never come out, perhaps this is due to the era when the play is set, the social habits of the time, the institution he works in, he has simply never done anything about his sexuality. Of course the irony is that the students are all very open about their sexuality. In one scene Hector has a male student riding side by side on the pillion seat of his motor cycle, and it’s the sort of thing you, a teacher, would never do with a female student, so at first I found all this stuff quite baffling. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced. And the same can be said of all the open homosexuality and bisexuality of the boys in the play. I never came across that when I was at school.”

“It’s all so witty,” adds Wood, “yes, witty is the best word to describe the mood of the play, it’s hilarious actually, so well written as I said before. The boys are so precocious and all of them are so very clever, and they do make jokes and many times it’s about their sexuality. I think this is what makes the play so funny.”

We discuss Hector’s roving hands, his cheeky pillion passenger antics and the series of difficult “run ins” that ensue with the impatient headmaster (Paul Goddard). “They have a fractious relationship at best; the Headmaster doesn’t agree with Hector’s teaching methods and wonders if he is actually doing any good for the boys at all. Feeling up the boys isn’t part of the agenda. I think what is interesting is that the boys, long into their lives will probably never remember someone like the Headmaster but they will always remember Hector, perhaps this is because he is constantly challenging the students, always testing them.”

Wood speaks highly of his fellow cast as he reflects on what must have been a momentous ”hard learn” rehearsal day in suffocating January heat. “Yes Paul Goddard is doing a wonderful job in the role of the Headmaster, another hard learn and another highly complex character, as are Heather Mitchell and James Mackay in their roles too, not to mention the younger cast, the boys bounding around the rehearsal room like the school kids next door, a great cast of younger talent, all highly intelligent actors playing intelligent characters, eight young frisky testosterone charged actors playing eight frisky testosterone charged roles.”

The History Boys by Alan Bennett, starring John Wood, opens at the Sydney Opera House this week. Further details»

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