‘Exactly what any radical playwright worth their salt should be doing’: THE CANE – Royal Court Theatre ★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Carole WoddisLeave a Comment

Royal Court Theatre – until 26 January 2019

Mark Ravenhill made his name as part of the 1990s In-Yer-Face wave of young British dramatists with the play calculated to shock, Shopping and F**king. But underneath its assault on modern-day alienation and consumerism, apart from linguistic abilities, there was structural confidence and, like his female counterpart of that time, Sarah Kane, acute moral exploration of modern society.

The Cane, Ravenhill’s latest, represents a further investigation, one that remarkably refuses to follow today’s tropes of outrage and counter-intuitively, presents a different kind of moral ethic. Indeed, its final speech leaves you in some doubt as to exactly where it’s moral compass is pointing and that is, if anything, its greatest achievement: ambiguity – for it points to a tolerance that our baying, mob-directed populism would surely decry. And there’s nothing more refreshing and exhilarating than a voice going against the popular tide, that makes you question your assumptions.

Structurally, it also deceives. In a shortish – one hour, 40 minutes – three-hander, the subjects under the microscope this time – control, education and corporal punishment, revisionism and victimhood – are condensed into something that stylistically often reminded me of absurdist plays of the 1950s, especially that of the French absurdist, Boris Vian.

Ostensibly, The Cane revolves around a revolt – or rather, a demonstration. A much-loved deputy head, Edward (Alun Armstrong) is on the point of retiring after 45 years. Yet pupils from his school are attacking his home. Inside, his wife (the admirable Maggie Steed) is holed up though somehow their estranged daughter, Anna (Nicola Walker) has found a way in.

Almost immediately the bickering and long-held resentments start flooding to the surface. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d walked in on an undistinguishable soap. But no. There is clever craftsmanship going on here, a setting up of convention that is constantly subverted by linguistic stylisation and absurdist juxtapositions that tell you not all is as it seems.

It has been disclosed that the retiring Deputy Head was the perpetrator of the practice of caning boys, a practice now outlawed by legislation. But the cat is out of the bag. Edward should be punished. And the pupils of Edward’s school – identified apparently in a recent Ofsted report as `failing’ – are out to show their retiring teacher that he’s become persona non grata.

Family antagonisms and colloquial dialogue apart, the cane itself in The Cane comes to reveal itself as a symbol of something much darker and more general – states of mind, secrets, obedience to hierarchies, domestic abuse – as the attic in which Edward has kept the cane hidden – slowly descends.

© Johan Persson, Alun Armstrong ascending in his territory, his `kingdom’, the loft…

Unfortunately, the night I saw it, the production itself was plagued with problems. The attic stuck half way and Maggie Steed seemed convulsed with some terrible cough which left her practically breathless by the end.

Despite all this, Alun Armstrong never wavered presenting a personality at once benign, devious, obsessive, cruel and tolerant – a wonderfully complex and human mixture. His final speech to the protesting vigilantes to lock up those who had done caning in the past before they forget was a master stroke of sardonic venom.

As a production, Vicky Featherstone manages to subtly underscore its surreal/absurdism although I’d have loved to have seen Nicola Walker’s Anna, regarded as a traitor by her parents for being a teacher in an Academy possibly about to take over her father’s sometime grammar/comprehensive, played with stricter steel. Ravenhill has a wonderful line, spoken by Edward, about the jargon of today. Anna is full of it.

© Johan Persson, Maggie Steed as Maureen, loyal but under the deputy headmaster’s marital thumb, and Nicola Walker as the renegade daughter, Anna, now teaching in a hated Academy school…

If at times, Ravenhill’s feelings about modern day education threatens to become overly didactic, The Cane still emerges as unsettlingly unfashionable and a challenge to today’s predilection for blaming past indiscretions.

And you can’t ask for more than that. Exactly what any radical playwright worth their salt should be doing. Hooray!

The Cane
A new play by Mark Ravenhill

Edward: Alun Armstrong
Maureen: Maggie Steed
Anna: Nicola Walker

Director: Vicky Featherstone
Designer: Chloe Lamford
Lighting Designer: Natasha Chivers
Sound Designer: David McSeveney
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Assistant Director: Hannah de Ville
Casting Director: Amy Ball
Costume Supervisor: Lucy Walshaw

Runs: 1hr 40 mins without interval
TICKETS 020 7565 -5000
In person: Mon–Sat, 10am-start of perf or 6pm if no show
On-line: www.royalcourttheatre.co.uk

First perf of The Cane at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, Dec 6, 2018.
Runs to Jan 26, 2019.

This review published on this site, Dec 29, 2018

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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.

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