Who is Mark Ravenhill? I asked myself this question repeatedly as I watched his astonishing new play at the Royal Court. He muscled his way into public attention with his first full-length play, Shopping and Fucking in 1996, becoming one of the focal figures of that mid-nineties generational change in British playwriting that Aleks Sierz has called ‘In Yer Face’. And for a while, I guess, that punkish image clung to him, through Handbag and Faust is Dead and even when his style seemed to veer away from that in Some Explicit Polaroids and Mother Clap’s Molly House (both of which conceded more ground to a previous generation’s dramaturgical forms and even to some of their political and ethical commitments), he still seemed to some the Young Turk of the nineties, the blood and sperm playwright par excellence. When he wrote a pantomime for the Barbican, some were confused that he had actually enthusiastically written a pantomime and not assaulted the audience in the guise of pantomime. And, through the 2000s, he reminded me a bit of Bob Dylan, someone whose artistic restlessness was combined with a wicked resistance to being liked, and so sometimes perversely decided to shake off his followers with sharp changes of style, moving provocatively into areas where no one would dare follow. As Dylan found God, so Ravenhill found opera. But also Ravenhill has written Grand Guignol and adaptations and translations and libretti and his Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat sequence of 17 plays that were both extraordinarily ephemerally instant and monumentally epic, were both omnipresent and almost impossible to get to see. He wrote a deeply experimental and thrilling work, Over There, one of the most overlooked plays of this century, and a coolly minimal and classical play, The Cut, simply one of the best plays this century.
And now The Cane. Who is Mark Ravenhill, I wondered as I watched it. Here’s the plot; if you haven’t seen it, jump to the next paragraph after SPOILERS. In fact do that whenever you see that word. Edward is a teacher on the point of retirement, but plans for a celebration of his 45 years of service to the same school have been put in jeopardy because, in the course of looking back at his life and achievements, someone has discovered that he was the last teacher who used to administer the cane. The pupils are outraged and are blockading the house. SPOILERS: his somewhat estranged daughter, Anna, has come to the house, purportedly to give him a birthday card made by her parents, but more likely because she works for an Academy School business and has got wind of a devastating Ofsted inspection at her father’s school and wants to exploit the situation to her advantage. In the course of the discussion with her father (and mother, Maureen) she discovers that when corporal punishment was abolished, he brought the school cane (a venerable, almost ancient object) home and stored it in the attic. He goes and brings it down. As the crowds grow outside, Anna goads him into using the cane on her and at the end she plans to destroy him by going out a revealing her wound to the crowd.
Who is Mark Ravenhill? or rather, where do his sympathies lie? Not only is Ravenhill a theatrical chameleon, but in a play like this, he retreats rather gnomically behind his characters and refuses to let any explicit judgements of his characters shape the experience of the play. All of the characters are, in some ways, sympathetic. Anna has some helpful ideas about how the furore might be quietened down and it is hard not to feel for her frustration dealing with her parents’ complacency. Maureen is a powerful advocate of the values of a different generation, where not talking about things was as expressive and honest as talking about things. It is hard not to feel sympathy for Edward’s educational values and to feel that he is an incongruous focal point for an angry and moralistic mob. And they are all, in their ways, rather despicable: Anna’s conniving and her rages; Maureen’s emotional brutality; Edward’s petulant refusal to face facts.
There is one reading that would describe this play as a powerful, moderately right-wing defence of old-fashioned values against the hysterical moralism of the Twitterstorm mob mentality. There is another that could describe this play as a viciously intelligent liberal play about the dynamics of power, the violence of the family, the value of justice. In that sense, the play it most reminds me of is Oleanna by David Mamet, a play apparently written explicitly to criticise ‘political correctness’ but which I still maintain is far too good to be something as stupid as that and ends up being a deeply complicated and even-handed play about the vertiginous chasms of communication that can occur when liberalism fails. Like The Cane it builds to a climax where a despised figure is goaded into confirming exactly who his enemies say he is.
The other play - weirdly - that this reminded me of is The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan, another piece about a hated teacher on the point of retirement, driven to a kind of horrifying epiphany by youth. That play, like The Cane, is structured around the Headmaster’s attempt to handle the delicate matter of a farewell celebration, and finds sympathy and cruelty in an old man’s plight. And what this reminds me is that this is a play that draws on some venerable traditions of British theatre. (Note that Mamet adapted Rattigan for the screen, so the influence flows right through.) And it also encourages me to take seriously the sympathies of this play with the older generation. Not that the play does sympathise one-sidedly with them, both there are sympathies to be found there.
What it really makes me think of is Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The book is a history of the emergence of the modern prison out of the ruins of the previous punishment system of public tortures (flogging, hanging, drawing and quartering and the rest). Conventionally, we would think of a move from publicly inflicting pain on people to incarceration as a major liberalising step. However, Foucault asks us not to be too hasty, and notes that the prison system, particularly the Panopticon design, where all the inmates’ cells are arranged around a cylindrical prison so that they can all be seen by a central guard tower, are a social mechanism of surveillance that turns human beings into ‘docile bodies’ who have internalised the rule of law, because once you become used to the thought that you can always be seen, you behave that way even when there is no guard in the guard tower.
The parallel here is with the move from corporal punishment to more ‘civilised’ punishments like detentions, learning meetings, phone calls home and exclusions. But perhaps this system of liberal punishment is, in its way, as tyrannical as what it excluded. I certainly felt a Panoptical chill as Anna describes the Eyes Forward policy in her school:
All of our Academy schools operate an eyes forward policy. Students must keep their eyes to the front of the class at all times. At all times, staff must be able to see into student’s eyes. The student must seek permission if at any time they want to turn their head or turn their back upon a teacher. Permission is of course never reasonably withheld. It’s difficult often for students whose school has only recently acquired Academy status. Where before there has been only chaos the transition to order can be very challenging. But after a few weeks - I’ve seen it happen time and time again - eyes forward becomes second nature and a great calmness falls upon the child and spreads through the school (p. 72).
While I can imagine someone reading the play as a criticism of millennials for wanting to tear down confederate statues and rename buildings currently holding the name of a slaveowner, the play is doing something much more delicate. It seems to me to be asking about the complexities of judgement. It is clearly right to criticise the past (who doesn’t condemn slavery?); but at the same time it is clearly wrong to think of the past as a stupider version of the presence (the slaveowners were not guilty modern liberals, turning away from their doubts). In the renaming of buildings and the tearing down of statues, are we trying to tear out the roots of our own society’s failings or is it also a cowardly attempt to deny the past? Where does understanding the past become excusing the past? When does an acceptance of historical difference teeter into moral relativism? At the same time, excessive humility about the possible limitations of one’s own values can lead to moral paralysis.
All of these beautiful paradoxes and conundrums are beautifully captured in this production, which is staged in a room with no apparent way out. In fact, designer Chloe Lamford (who is perhaps the most exciting person working in British theatre at the moment) has done something remarkable with this play. She places the action of the play in a vertical, almost locked room, mostly deprived of furniture. The stairs are remnants, torn away, a kind of ghostly foreshadowing of the ransacking of the house that we might imagine after the play is over. But then, as the key revelation of the play happens, and we know what is in the attic, the attic begins to descend, like the weight of history, the compress and confine the action. And the rectilinear shape and dimensions of the first act (the set is almost a parody of the Royal Court stage) are disrupted by the teetering diagonal of a ladder that is a vast cane-like scar cutting down the stage, suggesting a world askew, a time out of joint. And SPOILERS at the very end, as Edward seems to be facing off the angry mob, the skies darken and history continues to descend, as if to crush him. It is honestly breathtaking.
And I’ve made the play sound terribly high-minded. But the great virtue of this play is its simplicity and its supreme dramatic confidence. It really is a play about a family dealing with a cane; it has not a drop of metaphorical portentousness. Ravenhill observes the dynamics of the family beautifully and captures the different attitudes and vocabularies of the two generations with wicked precision. There are some wonderful bits of traditional dramaturgical carpentry - the Act 1 curtain line, for example, or a misadventure with some coffee that brought gasps from the audience. And the moment where SPOILERS the cane is brought down and revealed to us is electric. It builds to the revelation of this totemic, occult object (which is also, of course, a fetish object) though it is a mark of Ravenhill’s complete control of his play that the moment redirects immediately, becoming mysterious, bathetic, electric and unsettling. And the climactic moment of ritual is astonishing, the whole play having been a discussion of the past and then the scene of the cane becomes completely present tense and it is horribly fascinating and appalling.
The cast is superb; Maggie Steed is brittle and brutal as Maureen; Nicola Walker aches with pain and glints with cruelty as Anna; and Alun Armstrong keeps you guessing about the teacher who administered the cane. Vicky Featherstone has directed this with wonderful assurance; the production is about 100 minutes straight through and it never drags; it is always fascinating. But the evening is ultimately Ravenhill’s. Before this, I think The Cut was my favourite of his plays, but this - which feels almost like a companion piece (someone will one day do The Cut and The Cane in rep, I’m sure) - may be even better. It is electrifying and complex and both highly traditional and urgently contemporary. Who is Mark Ravenhill? The man who’s just written one of the plays of the decade.