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 long 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.
While a play does not need to be relevant to be enjoyed, 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.