It’s easy to be blinded by James McAvoy’s mercurial performance in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, and indeed it’s one of the finest central performances I’ve witnessed on a West End stage, but this is a play that is not without its (considerable) faults.
Whilst there are parallels still there to be drawn, this 1968 satire has dated badly (cobweb covered members of the House of Lords, Marxist speechifying, quite frankly unfunny slapstick). Its absurdity and surreal tone sits somewhat uncomfortably with an audience more used to their drama being served up more naturalistically. However, if seeing James McAvoy in his underpants riding across the stage on a unicycle with the words “God Is Love” penned on his chest, his tutu wearing father accidently killing himself in a game of auto-erotic asphyxiation or the ensemble spontaneously bursting into a music hall ditty – then this is the play for you.
McAvoy is the 14th Earl of Gurney, newly returned to inherit the family estate but quite clearly one step beyond the usual aristocratic eccentricities, he enters clad in a monk’s cloak, claiming to be Jesus, leaping on and off a gigantic wooden cross, his family then do their utmost to disinherit him.
Whilst there are moments of genuine comedy and chuckles of recognition at the upper classes getting away with what they’ve perpetually gotten away with, there are things that sit most uncomfortably; the treatment of mental illness, the glib, stereotypical, throwaway and downright cruel representation of something that statistics state affects 1 in 4 people in the UK, just isn’t palatable today.
What saves the whole endeavour is McAvoy. His energy is mesmerising, burning like an incandescent flame from start to end, and I’m sure like many more who witnessed this performance, I personally can’t wait to see him on a West End stage again soon – just not in a Peter Barnes’ play.
Jamie Lloyd’s trimmed version of Richard III is a bold, bloody re-interpretation of the Bard’s classic tale.
Transplanting the action to the 1970’s and Britain’s own “winter of discontent” isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem and is more than a clever joke: with its climate of strikes, political plotting and military coups it adds an air of relatability to the narrative.
Soutra Gilmour’s maze-like set, comprising two long opposing desks and all the paraphernalia of a busy government office: fax machines, clunky telephones and typewriters, does much to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere of the production and limits both the playing area and movement of the polyester-clad actors. The surprising and menacing tricks in both the staging and the sound design from Ben and Max Ringham are particularly effective additions to the production too.
Martin Freeman ably heads up an accomplished cast. His dapper, controlled and contained Richard is utterly watchable: enemies are dispatched with cold efficiency, lines are delivered with machine-gun speed and a sharp-edged wit, however, if any criticism is to be made of his performance then it must be said that it lacks a little of the menace and magnetism that the role requires. Richard is a seducer of both those he needs in order to fulfil his ambitions and of the audience and Freeman is just a tad too reserved to achieve that.
Freeman is more than ably supported by the rest of the excellent cast, in particular Jo Stone-Fewings as the Duke of Buckingham and the always watchable Gina McKee who delivers a nicely pitched performance as Queen Elizabeth.
In this staging the violence is particularly violent: one enemy is drowned in a fish tank, another dispatched, strangled by a telephone cord and the blood spills freely around both the stage and the audience. For all the gore there is much humour in the production and credit must go to Jamie Lloyd and indeed, Martin Freeman for managing to make the famous, “A horse! A horse!” speech fit in this setting.
Lloyd’s edited version trims the playing time to a neat two and a half hours and loses little in doing so. This is a worthy adaptation that will doubtless attract a new audience to Shakespeare’s work and that is never a bad thing
Until September 27th.
Image: Marc Brennan