Jo Briggs at The Royal Court
14 December 2018
I am old enough to remember a cane at my village primary school in southern England; it appeared from time to time on a teacher’s desk or on top of the piano in the hall, but there were only unconﬁrmed rumours of its use. Mark Ravenhill’s excellent new play The Cane is about the generational change in attitude towards corporal punishment in schools and the consequences of being on the wrong side of history for one retiring teacher. It is also a funny and disturbing critique of the loosening of social restraint in the Internet age; the rise of individualism, self-justiﬁcation, and unchecked freedom of expression; and of the moral relativism required to judge the sins of the past by the standards of the present.
The play revolves around Edward, a deputy head who regularly caned pupils until corporal punishment was banned in British schools in the late 1980s, who lives with his loyal if repressed wife Maureen. Their only and estranged child Anna (also a teacher) has arrived at a time when plans for her father’s retirement celebrations are turning to disaster. The search for evidence about his long career at the school has unearthed Edward’s culpability in institutionalized violence towards children. News of this is spreading fast through the school community and beyond, and their house is under siege from an angry mob.
Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
This is Ravenhill’s ﬁrst play at the Royal Court since his full-length debut, Shopping and F***ing, which gained notoriety for its provocative depiction of the commodiﬁcation of sex at the height of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre in 1996. The Cane is a more mature and nuanced treatment of social and personal concerns, with some scenes that are no less shocking than Shopping and F***ing for being more understated. In place of the earlier play’s focus on compulsive consumption, The Cane showcases a newer popular obsession, victimhood and blame, and describes a world in which righteous indignation has become a form of mass entertainment, an opiate, and a blood sport. In this way, the play highlights one of the more uncomfortable narratives emerging in the era of #MeToo: there can never be any mercy for the perpetrators of historical offences, in no small part because it is not the victims but the mob that wants to see a particular kind of justice done.
Vicky Featherstone’s production brings out both the play’s simmering menace and its dark comedy. Chloe Lamford’s design, a beautifully conceived marriage of form and function, combines the aesthetics of a living room in need of updating with a bomb-damaged war-zone interior. lt is a visual symbol of the crisis escalating outside, and also acts as a signiﬁer of more hidden violence, both past and present, breaking through the surface of middle-class life. The room is ordinary if unusually empty, but the windows are boarded up and the stairs are half blown away. The set moves and opens up alongside the developing narrative, revealing a secret concealed in Edward’s private domain, the attic, much as the violence of the past has been parcelled away in the back of his mind.
Nicola Walker, Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
I’m sure l was not alone in recognising Alun Armstrong’s pitch-perfect Edward from my own school days: pedantic, sarcastic, unnecessarily critical, and with an air of latent menace built on an unbending sense of entitlement. Edward’s attitude veers from amused incomprehension to defensiveness and angry resistance, identifying as he does with a potentially large class of men being judged on old sins by new rules: “Force them from their villas in Spain or their retirement homes”, he argues, “… force them from the garden centres and the local history groups — and stand them before tribunals.” Maggie Steed is both hilarious and heart-breaking as Maureen, whose fussy, repetitive rituals mask her deep-seated fears. The strength of Nicola Walker’s performance as Anna lies in the character’s ambiguous relationship with her parents and with her own past, as she acts as the catalyst for both violence and catharsis within the family.
The Cane is a play for our troubled times. lt reveals a paradox in which the eradication of one form of violence leads to the release of an altogether more dangerous force. lt is also a well-told story, in which the writer has given emotional room to three well-rounded and convincing characters with real human frailties, making it a political piece that wears its polemic extremely lightly.