A generation ago, Mark Ravenhill was the bad boy of British theatre. He used a rude word in the title of his Royal Court debut, Shopping and F**king (1996), a play that didn’t just boast asterisks but lots of gall: rough gay sex, drugs, the threat of violence and damaged youth lost in a transactional Thatcherite world.
He wasn’t punished for being so shocking; it made his name. Yet only a year earlier, Sarah Kane, part of an unruly wave of edgier playwrights, got rounded on for her uber-visceral masterpiece Blasted. The line between accepted and unacceptable behaviour – in our theatre as in society – is a shifting one.
The Cane, which brings Ravenhill back to the Court for the first time in a decade, revisits the expired custom of caning in schools. But it also touches on broader questions about who makes the rules, and what the reckoning should be when tables get turned and those now perceived as transgressors are held to account. You could argue that the playwright, ever one to have his finger on this particular pulse, is here obliquely confronting the social media age of #MeToo.
One of the best-known faces on TV today – her distinctive, fiercely intelligent features a boon to Spooks, and latterly Unforgotten – Nicola Walker plays Anna, an Academy school head returning to a house she found loveless when growing up. Outside, a mob of youths has gathered – bricks have been thrown, intimations of retribution hang in the air. But her father, Alun Armstrong’s Edward, acts unconcerned, assuming the haters will have dissipated by the time it comes to his send-off at school, retiring after 45 years of pedagogical service.
Equally unfazed – almost comically so, as dismissive of the throng as she is of her visitor – is Edward’s protective wife Maureen (Maggie Steed) – and Anna's mother, though such is the level of estrangement you'd barely know it. The cause of the discontent outside emerges: Edward used to cane boys at the school before it was abolished in the state sector – the evidence lies, very symbolically, up in the attic: the ledger of boys’ names, the implement itself.
Across an uninterrupted hour and 45 minutes, an argument about educational customs of yore and best practice now – and also about who did what to whom years ago and who calls the shots now on a personal level – develops apace. If our intellectual sympathies tilt this way and that, as more information and recrimination seeps in, it would be hard to say we warm to any of the three.
There’s an artificial air to the dialogue, studded with repeated phrases, and a restraint to the behaviour on display in Vicky Featherstone’s production, which situates the action in an abstracted, toweringly tall, wallpapered living room.
Walker’s steady, almost steely gaze and pent-up intensity – lots of wary smiles, telling scowls and hands in pockets – makes Anna looks like the wronged party, and the most level-headed; yet such is the character’s attachment to impersonal educational jargon, and zeal to reform her father’s school, that there’s something strangely disconnected about her. The nicely off-hand quality that Armstrong and Steed bring to the roles of the parents – with flashes of latent ire – makes their behaviour more ostensibly fallible and relatable yet, in its way, chill and remote.
It’s an accomplished play, all told, in its own hermetic terms, and the acting is top-class. Yet the essential question “why should we care?” is left hanging by its somewhat academic handling of its subject-matter, as if a full-blooded drama has slipped through the author’s fingers. It works well as an end-of-term treatise – but part of me wishes that Ravenhill would rediscover his inner enfant terrible.
Until Jan 26. Tickets: 020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com/