A Patriot for Me by John Osborne, adapted by Philip Osment

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A Patriot for Me by John Osborne, adapted by Philip Osment. Dir. Philip Franks. Perf. Bette Bourne, Richard Goulding, Peter Egan. BBC Radio 3, 7 Jun. 2015. BBCiPlayer,

Very much a succès d'estime on its first performance in 1965, "A Patriot for Me" is a sprawling drama, ostensibly set in Austria-Hungary during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but rather commenting on some of the iniquities characteristic of Britain at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

Redl (Richard Goulding) is an ambitious star of the Austrian army thrust into an upper-class world of treachery, decadence and mistrust. He has to suppress his sexual instincts in the interests of professional advancement, but finds it almost impossible to do so. Hence he renders himself vulnerable to attack - both physical and mental - from his rivals, should they discover his true sexuality. Eventually he ends up being compromised by the Russians and has to spy on those whom he most respects.

With a narrator offering the kind of cynical comments characteristic of Osborne in his prime, "A Patriot for Me" has strong links to his earlier plays ("Look Back in Anger," "The Entertainer"). Osborne rails against traditional values that exclude difference and value conformity, even when those in power have little or no justification to remain there. The world evoked by the play is an Old World based on privilege and class-division; the kind of society which by 1965 (the date of the play's first performance) should have been obsolete, but which in truth was as strong as ever. A Patriot for Me extends the political content still further; in its analysis of spying and its roots, Osborne draws direct parallels between the Austria-Hungary of the early twentieth century and post-war Britain, where the so-called "Gang of Four" (Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt) willfully betrayed their country by working for the KGB.

It's interesting that Osborne, by nature a person who would have been opposed to homosexuality, should have analyzed the subject in "A Patriot for Me." In truth his treatment seems a little archaic now, evoking a world of queens and poseurs redolent of Quentin Crisp and "The Naked Civil Servant." Nonetheless the basic plea for tolerance remains significant, especially in the armed services.

Philip Franks's production contains a clutch of memorable performances, from Peter Egan's suave and sophisticated Mohl to Bette Bourne's vulnerable von Epp (the part played by George Devine in the original staging), and Goulding's Redl, trying and failing to maintain a façade of masculinity.