It is entirely possible that finance for this revival of Peter Barnes’ satire of the British class system was raised purely on the back of a one-sentence pitch: ‘enter James McAvoy riding a unicycle whilst wearing white underpants’.
It may well have been a tough sell otherwise, as The Ruling Class acts as an exemplar of the potential perils of reviving a near-forgotten play. Staged in 1968 it would have appeared as a topical satire that referenced the ideals of the summer of love and the pressures being place on the established elites by the social revolutions that rippled through the decade. Barnes’ sets an aristocratic establishment against the more hippyish virtues of McAvoy’s ‘JC’ – who has a particular fascination in bonding the pleasures of the spiritual and physical realms.
However by 2014 – with society bended to fit the tyranny of the financial markets and the ideals of the free-spirited slowly broken by an advertising industry that learnt it could get fat by selling homogenised difference – this world is almost unrecognisable from the one we ended living in.
A play does not have to be relevant to be enjoyed but one must question why it has never seen a major revival since the Leeds Playhouse in 1983. Given the canny programming of Jamie Lloyd’s critically and commercially successful Trafalgar Transformed seasons up to this point, it does seem like a curious choice.
However it turns out the play isn’t without interest. Whilst it is creaky and overlong – two and a half hours plus an interval for a satirical comedy? – there are several quite unexpected tonal shifts that means you are never quite sure what is going to come next. I certainly was unprepared for a play from 1968 to open with a quite gruesome death by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure. Equally the fact that it suddenly breaks into vaudevillian song and dance routines for no discernible reason is baffling and pleasing in equal measure.
Without a doubt the main reason for staging the play is that it is an opportunity to put an actor on stage and giving them permission to ‘ACT’. And in McAvoy – who was thrillingly compelling in Lloyd’s excellent Macbeth , alongside Claire Foy more recently seen losing her head in Wolf Hall – we have a performer who has the charisma necessary for such a performance.
He is a pleasure to watch on stage – possessed of a charm that teeters on the edge of devilish but also capable of a vulnerability that allows moments where the audience can empathise with a man who, if mad, is capable of committing acts of horrendous brutality. As in Macbeth, McAvoy brings an urgency and physicality to the role. He is a constant blur of motion, flitting back and forth always restless and unable to settle. In one of the more remarkable scenes he drops into a full squat, as if grotesquely mimicking a dwarf and waddles back and forth across the stage.
This livewire energy propels the play, and it is noticeable that the longueurs occur when he is offstage. Indeed it is almost 15 minutes before his arrival and it is curious that Lloyd did not cut much of this opening; it felt unnecessary to the plot and one could feel the audience becoming increasingly restless. Equally there are a number of conversational scenes that, even if they don’t feel dated by the period, seem as if they come out of another era.
The rest of the cast play a succession of caricatured grotesques – the level of grotesqueness pretty much determined by what class Barnes’ has assigned them to. Kathryn Drysdale (a world away from her ‘2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps’ days) does a good job with Grace Shelly, a role that must look unrewarding on paper –having to play straight against a cast of extremes – and Drysdale does well to find something interesting within it. Joshua McGuire – who was very good in the ultra high-tech Privacy at the Donmar last year – is the best of the rest. He plays the wheedling prospective MP and works hard to give us a character who we can at least find marginally sympathetic.
The play changes pace in the second half and audiences are likely to be split over which they enjoy more. Personally I feel that it develops and adds a much-needed complexity; it moves away from grand farce into a harder edged satire. McAvoy’s character is propelled by his magnetism and the good will generated before the interval but he has become a much darker proposition, and as a result the play interestingly toys with how we often find it hard to shift our first impressions about a person.
Whilst I don’t think there was any great call to revive The Ruling Class and it would have been nice if Lloyd had taken the bold move to cut the original down to a more palatable length, it is hard not to recommend it on the basis of the central performance alone.
James McAvoy is developing into a potent stage presence and he delivers a bold, modern performance – his style bridging the gap between the old-fashioned powerhouse performances of the stage with the more subtle work developed in front of camera. The result is a physical and intense performance that reminds you that ‘acting’ is taking place, whilst not letting you forget that you are watching a character in a play. If he doesn’t quite have the craft to be ranked in the top tier of stage actors, he is fast moving up the ranks.
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