The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Winter 2018-2019
Mark Ravenhill does not think well of British schools.
they were brutal places, in the present they are failing the
students, and in the future – judging from the currently
fashionable model of privately-run academies – they will be
dehumanising robot-creating factories.
the people involved
in teaching and administration were, are and will be fighting their
own personal psychological and moral demons, so that the children in
their care were, are and will be the victims, collateral damage in
their private wars.
offers no solutions, nor is he obliged
to. But his presentation is a little too one-sided and riddled with
holes to be as convincing or despair-inducing as he would wish.
veteran teacher is retiring after forty-five years in the same
school. Back when corporal punishment was allowed, it was he who had
the task of striking offending boys on the hand with a cane. Today's
students have somehow discovered that, and demonstrations of their
outrage are turning toward mob violence.
the school itself
has gone downhill and is in imminent danger of being taken over by
the education authorities, and probably handed over to a firm that
his wife supports him as she always has,
the couple's grown daughter sides with the academies and even the
mob. But her position is made suspect by a lifetime of antagonism
toward her father – as a child she attacked him with an axe, for
reasons never fully explained, and she betrays an unmistakable
satisfaction and even glee in his downfall now.
shows how the personal and political/pedagogic stories are
inseparable and how they contaminate each other, and he is strikingly
even-handed in the way that no one comes out of his presentation
a secondary theme emerges from the play and Vicky
Featherstone's direction, one that (possibly deliberately) muddies
the seeming clarity of his vision.
in the real-world cases of
historic sexual abuse that no doubt partly generated this play, there
can be no question whatever that the crimes of the past were crimes.
But the play allows or even invites you to find something troubling
about judging the past by
modern standards of right and wrong.
The practice of hitting students
decades ago was unquestionably wrong, but it was the accepted and
legal practice, and it is never suggested that this particular
teacher was any worse or more sadistic than his counterparts in every
other school in the land.
even-handed as the play tries to be, the
father played with quiet sincerity by Alun Armstrong becomes far more
sympathetic than the daughter to whom Nicola Walker skilfully gives
an increasingly evident private agenda that undercuts her moral
Maggie Steed as the wife and mother bravely lets
her character sink into insignificance as what seemed like admirable
loyalty to her husband begins to look more like cowardly avoidance of
any judgments or decisions.
The Cane is a passionate play and a thought-provoking one. But after evidently setting out to damn everyone, it seems to stumble its way into taking sides.
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