Riding the crest of the oh-so-politically-correct zeitgeist, The Cane taps into the current craze for scrutinising old sins under today’s standards.
Premiering in 2018 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, The Cane flows from the fiercely sharpened pen of prolific British playwright Mark Ravenhill. The Australian premiere is a canny, timely choice for Red Stitch, fitting snugly into the intimate performance space and finding a stimulating match with the company’s worldly audiences.
Unfolding in real time, the visit of an estranged adult daughter to her retirement-ready parents seems at first glance an altogether naturalistic work. Lara Weeks’ set and costume designs place the action in the claustrophobic living space of a poky English terrace home, its residents dressed as drably as the presumably gloomy skies. While there are all manner of recognisable aspects to the family conflicts, deliberately stilted speech patterns soon give the impression of a stylised piece of writing, deftly facilitating the view beyond the surface events to the metaphor at the play’s heart.
A key factor in the ongoing lack of naturalism is the absence of any character names. The three leads have names stated in the program, but they are never used on stage. It is particularly striking that the parents do not use their daughter’s name. Even the absent character from the father’s school is simply referred to as “The Head.”
After 45 years of service, the father’s retirement from the local state school is imminent. Shifting away from celebratory congratulations, the mood of the past and present students moves to outrage when research uncovers the father’s use of the cane for corporal punishment as part of his role as Deputy Head. The fact that use of the cane was legal and was sanctioned by both the Head and parents of each offending boy is Ravenhill’s master stroke (no pun intended), shining a vivid light on the unavoidable conflict of using today’s standards to judge and condemn the past’s actions.
Ravenhill cleverly ramps up the ethics at play by questioning the father’s feelings towards use of the cane. A larger concept of brutality being passed down the generations also runs through the play.
Director Kirsten von Bibra deftly balances the non-naturalistic with the humane, crafting a uniform performance style for the channels of politely interrupted dialogue and giving each of the three characters a distinct and well-defined spirit. Working like an orchestral conductor, von Bibra juggles the ever-shifting power balances as each of the warring family members seeks the higher ground.
A one-act wonder coming in at well-judged 100 minutes, The Cane is broken up midway through by a rotation of the set pieces, turning the view by 180o.
Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting design frequently adds atmospheric shadows, giving a stronger sense of crowding to the relatively cramped quarters. Sound designer Adam Casey gently suggests the presence of an unruly mob outside the home, and utilises his compositions to enhance the sense of unease at key moments.
Smartly attired and coiffured, Jessica Clarke represents the new wave sweeping in to replace the perceived failures of her father’s generation. Clarke nicely underplays the smug sense of superiority of her character (Anna), adding a layer of mystery to the alleged violence of her youth.
Caroline Lee presents a seemingly sympathetic character (Maureen), surprising the audience when the mother determinedly competes with her daughter and undermines her husband.
As a father, husband and educator struggling to hold on to a power he once wielded, Dion Mills avoids the simplicity of one-dimensional villainy, drawing a modicum of audience sympathy, or at least understanding, for his character (Edward).
As relevant as plays come, The Cane is gripping viewing.
The Cane plays at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Melbourne until 9 May 2021. For tickets, click here.
Photos: Jodie Hutchinson