History Boys one of the most talked about new plays (Australia)

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Education -- and specifically education that values knowledge for its own sake -- is the subject of Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, which Hytner directed for the National Theatre and has now brought to Sydney. Since its premiere in London in 2004, The History Boys has become one of the most talked-about new plays -- it won awards for director and playwright -- not only because it comes from Bennett's pen, but because it pushes some very contemporary buttons.

''You can see [in the play] the roots of the way we are treated now, as if there is no such thing as objective truth,'' says Hytner, in Sydney for the opening. ''Everything is twisted, everything is presented and spun. It's perfectly plain, the way the [play's] smart young historian, Irwin, twists history, and the way a set of disputed facts can be twisted to take us into a war'' -- he means Iraq -- ''which nobody supported.''

The history boys are sixth-formers at an English school, whose headmaster is force-feeding them for entrance into Oxford and Cambridge. The school's general studies teacher, Hector -- played by Richard Griffiths, Uncle Vernon of Harry Potter fame -- is having none of it. A motorbike-riding eccentric with a fondness for Gracie Fields, he teaches with his heart and regards education as a getting of wisdom, not a getting of a place on the schools league table.

Enter the bright but intellectually slippery Irwin, brought in to give the boys some final polish for the university entrance exams. Not much older than the students themselves, he encourages them to take a contrary view of textbook history and to dazzle the examiners with their independent thought -- even if it means explaining that Hitler was just another politician. Bennett presents the stand-off between these different ideas about the purpose of education -- represented by Hector and Irwin -- with subtlety and wit. The wordplay is exhilarating. The History Boys is a play about teaching, and also about growing up: the boys are almost men, by turns playful and serious, and thoroughly preoccupied with sex.

The National Theatre's production is on a world tour that will include, after Sydney, an extended Broadway run (it is also being made into a film). The touring cast is almost the same as that of the London premiere -- only the actors playing the headmaster (Malcolm Sinclair here) and teacher Mrs Lintott (Maggie Steed) are different. Sydney Theatre Company, which is presenting the show, has reported its highest-ever advance sales for the month-long season.

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