The Old Country

Original London West End Production with Alex Guinness / Anthony Quayle - 1977

1st London West End Revival with Timothy West - 2006

Play by Alan Bennett. Hilary, a former Foreign Office official and British spy is now exiled in the Soviet Union. A traitor to King, country and class. But when his sister and newly knighted brother-in-law come to visit him and his long-suffering wife, Bron, they are forced to re-examine their allegiances. The Old Country deals with questions of loyalty and betrayal, homeland and exile, friendship and family, in a way which is both extraordinarily funny and exceptionally touching.

Alan Bennett says: "I have written three plays about spies: The Old Country, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. Despite two of them being set in what was then the Soviet Union they are all of them plays about England and two of them, The Old Country and An Englishman Abroad, plays about exile. Both have characters, Hilary and Guy Burgess, who long for home and who, in the way of exiles, whether voluntary or not, cannot bear the thought of change in the country they have left. No exile can; their home country must remain the same or their exile from it becomes futile and they have nowhere to go back to, even if it's only in their dreams. This is why what were the colonies retained for so long the keenest flavour of the old country. The old country is England.
"I have put some of my own sentiments into the mouths of the spies. In one of the plays it's suggested that a possible reason for someone spying is because he/she wants a place to be alone and that having a secret supplies this. I believe this to be psychologically true but there is a sense, too, that an ironic attitude towards one's country and a scepticism about one's heritage are a part of that heritage. And so, by extension, is the decision to betray it. It is irony activated.
"Though Hilary is a fictional character I can imagine him living on and coming back home in old age to be received with open arms. You only have to survive in England for all to be forgiven. This nearly happened to Oswald Mosley, who actually came to see The Old Country on one of his visits to London in the seventies. And if it nearly happened to Mosley it would certainly have happened to Burgess, who could have come home, had he lived, because there was no evidence on which he could have been charged. I can imagine, as is said in the play, a future for Burgess like the one I envisage for Hilary that would include going on Parkinson and Desert Island Discs and dining out all over London. In England you only have to be able to eat a boiled egg at ninety and they think you deserve the Nobel Prize.
"It suits governments to make treachery the crime of crimes, but the world is smaller than it was and to conceal information can be as culpable as to betray it. In 1957, for instance, there was a nuclear accident at Windscale in which the full extent of the fall-out was hidden from the public. Were the politicians and civil servants responsible for this cover-up less culpable than the Cambridge spies? Because for the spies it can at least be said that they were risking their own skins whereas the politicians were risking someone else's.
"I don't believe treachery is the crime of crimes, though it suits governments to make it so. Treachery nowadays is too narrowly drawn. To hand information over to the enemy (provided you can determine who the enemy is) may be a crime but so, too, is concealing information from one's own people. And that is still going on."

Alan Bennett's other West End plays include The History Boys, Untold Stories: Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, Enjoy and The Madness of George III.


Original London West End Production with Alex Guinness / Anthony Quayle - 1977

Opened 7 September 1977, Closes 5 August 1978 at the Queen's Theatre in London

The original cast, up to Saturday 13 May 1978, featured Alec Guinness as 'Hilary', Rachel Kempson as 'Bron' and John Phillips as 'Duff' with Faith Brook 'Veronica', Bruce Bould as 'Eric' and Heather Canning as 'Olga'.

The cast from Monday 15 May 1978 featured Anthony Quayle as 'Hilary', Rachel Kempson as 'Bron' and Michael Aldridge as 'Duff' with Faith Brook as 'Veronica', John Lester as 'Eric' and Joan Hemingway as 'Olga'.

Directed by Clifford Williams with designs by John Gunter and lighting by Leonard Tucker.


1st London West End Revival with Timothy West - 2006

Previewed 13 March 2006, Opened 20 March 2006, Closed 6 May 2006 at the Trafalgar Studios 1

The cast features Timothy West as 'Hilary', Jean Marsh as 'Bron' and Simon Williams as 'Duff' with Susan Tracy as 'Veronica', Tim Delap as 'Eric' and Rebecca Charles as 'Olga'. Directed by Stephen Unwin with sets by John Gunter, costumes by Mark Bouman, lighting by Ben Ormerod and sound by Dan Steele. Presented by English Touring Theatre.

Timothy West on his role as 'Hilary' in The Old Country: "It's very much an analysis of his feelings about returning home and what he'd like to find there, and whether in fact he should be trying to find reasons to go back or not. It's a play that I saw and liked very much in 1977; it's extraordinarily profound and Alan Bennett's writing is absolutely fascinating. It struck me that it had a very particular feel, quite unlike Alan's other plays about real people who were spies, this is about an imaginary man."

"Alan Bennett has written plays about Guy Burgess (An Englishman Abroad) and Anthony Blunt (A Question Of Attribution) but his fascination is not only with spies but the exile of the mind. Hilary is a deserter not just from his country but from himself, his wife and from life itself. Central to the four-cornered debate which is really what anchors The Old Country is one very simple dilemma: If you go into exile, it is crucial that the old country remains the same. This may not be the very best of Bennett but it has a haunting kind of fascination for all it has to say about the country where it is not set; either you really can see more clearly from afar, or else the only way to keep England our England is to get the hell out." The Daily Express

"Alan Bennett's The Old Country was first performed in 1977, with Alec Guinness as the British traitor in exile in Russia. I suspect he made a better fist of it than Timothy West's Hilary, who is bored and bitter but surely too faltering to have managed the many faces or negotiated the moral maze necessary to deceive his family and betray his country. Despite some brilliant writing, it's better on the page than the stage, where it seems - in Stephen Unwin's production, anyway - cerebral and static... The setting, a dacha among fir trees, has a distinctly Chekhovian air, which is enhanced when Hilary's towny sister (Susan Tracy) arrives from England in an outfit better suited to Ascot. Her husband (Simon Williams) is one of those establishment Brits who knows everyone and can fix anything - anything, that is, except his homosexual tendency, which has led to betrayals of his own. Jean Marsh gives a wonderful performance as Hilary's wintry wife Bron, but none of the characters is ever more than a talking head." The Mail on Sunday

"The Old Country is a mordant, poignant, comical portrayal of a traitor in exile, and the way in which such exiles confusedly idealise a betrayed homeland that, in their absence, has ceased to exist. Hilary has been stuck out in his Russian dacha with his wife, Bron, for 14 years, since their night flight from England back in 1963. Now he spends his days sitting in an armchair, wreathed in a melancholy and grouchy conservatism, his youthful communism all but invisible, wearing his Garrick Club tie and listening to Elgar... Into this static and lugubrious existence comes some comic relief in the shape of a visit from Hilary's sister, Veronica, and her husband, Duff... Williams, as Duff, is a sheer delight, a weird, mannered performance exactly right for a weird, mannered character: a slimeball Establishment creep who sits on every important committee from the Arts Council to the Royal Opera, quotes endlessly in foreign languages and, as we discover, does unspeakable things to rent boys... Hilary loathes Duff, naturally, but he can't resist mining him for information about England, their England. It is no longer his England, he finds. His sorrow on learning that England in 1977 has no place for Lyons Corner Houses is at once ludicrous and touching. West plays it to perfection: shuffling, bowed, full of longing, nostalgia and regret... The realities of life in what Ronnie Reagan was to call the 'evil empire' are hinted at but never looked at straight, as if they might be an embarrassment. We are supposed to find Hilary an amiable old boy, after all... This is not The History Boys, then, but a clumsier and more ponderous exercise, redeemed by pitch-perfect acting and some neat and observant comedy." The Sunday Times

The Old Country in London at the Trafalgar Studios previewed from 13 March 2006, opened on 20 March 2006 and closed on 6 May 2006