The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre
The Cane is a bread-and-butter production for the Royal Court. Recognised alt-playwright, of-the-moment subject matter, beloved stage actors with strong TV profiles. If that sounds like damning the drama with faint praise, then it’s not meant to; the piece is often excellent. It’s just very on-brand.
Retiring teacher Edward (Alun Armstrong) – skin-crawlingly referred to as Daddy – is being hounded by a mob of pupils from his soon-to-be ex-school. His wife Maureen (Maggie Steed) is waiting for the headmaster. And estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) has returned after years, spouting Tory management jargon in favour of actual conversation. There are axe marks on the wall, there’s wood over the window and there’s a nasty little secret in the attic.
How do you go about dealing with institutional violence from decades past? What responsibility should the individual who carried out said violence bear? And how much do the motivations and actions of those doing the accusing matter if the accusations prove to be true?
Mark Ravenhill frames these questions – the weighing of historical crimes that were once acceptable but now are (and should always have been) abhorrent – through a language that seems to try and capture the potentially alienating effects of modern vernacular on those not completely au-fait with its uses. This is done by mixing loaded, audience-recognised terms like victim, survivor and snowflake with the managerial babble of Michael Gove-esque school-speak: “pupil voice”, “best practice”, “tensions can be dispersed”. Nonsense if you’re not up-to-date with your lingo, but a tool with which to baffle and beat those deemed in the wrong.
There’s also something in the specific discussion of school systems, and the onslaught of Academies, that is perhaps getting at the idea that new doesn’t necessarily mean better. When Edward describes how children were punished 30 years ago, it’s awful; but the eerie silence of Anna’s Academies is almost as chilling.
Ravenhill balances this seeming scepticism about the ways in which people are torn down with an investigation into the excuses and abuses allowed of quick-to-anger, controlling, powerful white men. Armstrong’s Edward is revealed to be a bully and a misogynist, cruel and pathetic as he tries to justify past behaviour, the actor’s considered superiority masking a vulgar viciousness. In the face of her husband, the posh indignation of Steed’s Maureen is shown to be far more fragile than it seems.
Exhibiting The Cane’s slipperiness best is Walker’s Anna. She is, broadly, in the right, taking her father to task over his aggressions – both school-sanctioned and otherwise – while urging her mother to stand up to him. Yet she is devious and silver-tongued, playing her part in a currently-accepted form of institutional destruction that she may well be required to apologise for in the future.
Photos: Johan Persson
The Cane is at the Royal Court Theatre from 6th December until 26th January 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.