The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Studios
At a moment when Britain is more critical of her society than ever comes Peter Barnes’ astonishing The Ruling Class. There are so many layers to this production – religion, politics, duty, family, sexuality, madness – that it’s frankly unbelievable it’s squeezed into a running time of less than three hours.
Jack Gurney, a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he’s God, inherits an Earldom upon the death of his eccentric father. The family attempt to “cure” Jack of his mental illness so that he may take his proper place in society. Cue a powerfully cutting political satire that explores the trappings of the British upper class, taking a surprisingly frank look at madness, as well as being a jolly good show.
Barnes is a master playwright of the old order: his command of language is astounding, his script the vehicle through which the tremendous cast deliver some of the finest performances of their careers. This play is a dark satire that’s splutteringly funny, with some excellent musical ditties that offer sharp relief. It’s piped full of trite observations and off-hand comments about the nature of religion and the “ruling classes” that have the audience guffawing into their sleeves. The pantomime elements of director Jamie Lloyd’s production do nothing to take away from the seriousness of the political message.
The set and props are in stark contrast to the modern theatre, strangely reflective of a class divide, while the physicality of the cast brings a strong Shakespearean element, matching the quality of the script. The whole cast’s grasp of the stage is exquisite – this play is really something special, and they know it. Though, undoubtedly, it is James McAvoy who stands out as the would-be Earl with the God complex. He is a talent so raw that this performance is likely to get him discovered all over again. He has utter mastery over Barnes’ script, delivering it with an intensity and clarity that gets lost in film. It might just be the best thing he’s ever done.
Running throughout The Ruling Class is a visceral quality, simmering with aggressive politics and an exploratory gaze on the nature and behaviour of mental illness. Jack is free as a madman; as he becomes oppressed by the duties of his class, he becomes undone. The scathing barrage against the upper echelons of society, played out on stage, is incredibly clever and well crafted. There is no chip on the shoulder here, but a genuinely intelligent, unflinching unpicking of privilege.
Written in 1968, The Ruling Class is utterly relevant today. Entertaining as hell, rising to a chilling climax, it’s a subtle attack on the British class system that explores social disparities in the most extreme of ways. So alike to Shakespeare it’s astonishing, Lloyd has created something that will go down in history. Acerbic, probing, madcap genius.
Photos: Johan Persson
The Ruling Class is on at Trafalgar Studios until 11th April 2015, for further information or to book visit here.