Paul T Davies reviews Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane now playing at the Royal Court Theatre.
Royal Court Theatre.
13 December 2018
One of the few writers from the “In-yer-face” period of plays in the 1990s to maintain a lasting career, Mark Ravenhill is still being produced and staged today, even though Shopping and Fucking will always be considered his major work. He always surprises, I’m never sure what he will produce next, be it the melancholic and wonderful song cycle Ten Plagues, or adaptations of classics, or even pantomime. This is his first new play for some time, and deals with historic child abuse, but one that was legal and within the boundaries of the law- corporal punishment in schools until it was outlawed in the 1980s.
Edward is about to retire, a former Deputy Head Master, he has taught at the same school for over 45 years. Ahead of his leaving do, the fact that he caned boys regularly has come to light, and an angry mob has gathered outside his home, and a brick has been thrown through the window. He and his wife, Maureen, haven’t left the house for six days, and now their daughter, Anna, has turned up with questions of her own. She works for the “enemy”, Academy schools, and they are so nakedly vile to her you wonder why she has bothered to turn up. As the play progresses, however, her intention is clear- that of revenge. She refuses to remember her childhood rage when she chased her father wielding an axe, and it is hinted that her rage stemmed from abuse. The impression of each character shifts as the play goes on- did Edward go beyond the limits of the law and beat the children mercilessly? It becomes clear that Maureen is the victim of coercive control, and Anna offers her a way out. The angry mob that grows in number represent the Twitter storm, and it reminded me a little of the mob that tear Sebastian apart for his “deviancy” in Tennessee William’s Suddenly Last Summer.
A trio of strong actors make this a worthwhile watch. Throughout the play Nicola Walker is a calm centre, keeping her revenge and rage at bay until she manipulates the situation to her advantage. Maggie Steed has Maureen sealed into a shield of denial which begins to crack as her situation becomes apparent. As Edward, Alun Armstrong convincingly presents all aspects of Edward, sometimes a tyrant, but also a man who was-in effect- just carrying out the letter of the law. Chloe Lamford’s fractured set of the home captures their situation well, with the axe marks still visible on the wall as no repairs have been carried out for years, stairs like broken teeth, and a ceiling that lowers to reveal the attic, a place where Edward’s cane is stored. The minimal props give them greater meaning in Vicky Featherstone’s production.
However, considering Ravenhill has often played with form and content, it’s quite a traditional play, with nods to Greek Theatre in its structure, and it’s a predictable piece. Events are telegraphed clumsily, such as the warnings about placing hot liquid near a laptop, and although there are some good moments of revelation, the stakes don’t feel raised high enough. Some of the acting also veers towards the melodramatic, but the echo chamber of social media is dealt with very well. It feels as if there’s a more horrifying conclusion waiting in the wings, and, unlike the cane itself, the play lacks a bit of sting.