Re:View – ‘The Ruling Class’
Peter Barnes’ troubling 1968 satire about madness and the inheritors of Albion is one of the most English modern plays I can think of, apart from Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’, which is more concerned with rural magic. This is a play of big themes, tying the church, the state, class, money, sex and insanity into a very tangled and at times almost impenetrable knot. What it has at its centre is a grandstanding performance for a male lead, who is required to pass through a vast array of emotional states in its two and three-quarter hour running time. He’s also required to strip, fence, dance and ride a unicycle.
Jack is the next Earl of Gurney, his father having severed the line (and himself) by auto-erotic asphyxiation in a ballet tutu. Unfortunately, Jack has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by his funding-chasing German doctor, and as the estate passes to Jack’s male heir – if he can be persuaded to have one – he must be made sane long enough to procreate, after which he can be committed and the line, its property and position in the House of Lords, can continue.
So what’s a little madness in a highborn English family? The Gurneys have help on their side from the Bishop, the local Tories and Grace, a call-girl who’s willing to be sold off as a brood mare. But there’s a problem. Jack says he’s married – to Marguerite, La Dame Aux Camelias, Miss La Traviata herself. Oh, and one other small problem – he’s convinced he’s God. ‘How do you know?’ asks his half sister-in-law. ‘Simple,’ he replies. ‘When I pray to him I find I’m talking to myself.’
So all that’s left to do is convince him that he’s not God, get Grace pregnant and call the doctors back. Except that the cure works rather too well, and Jack becomes such a red-clawed arch-Tory that he turns from being the God of Love to the Angel of Death. It’s a vote-winner with the Far Right, but the family doesn’t realise what they’ve unleashed. Jack’s mask of sanity has in fact slipped and he is now Saucy Jack, the Ripper himself…
This is such an overripe, mad confection that it’s hard to take in at one sitting, as Barnes’ best works always are. There’s the Eton Boating Song, a fight with a giant demon and a battle with an electric Christ, there are sunflowers everywhere and a gigantic crucifix onstage, and it might feel at first as if somebody in the sixties did a tad too many class As, but Barnes puts method in this madness, so that by the time Jack appears in the House of Lords for his maiden speech, appearing before an audience of rotting skeletons, we’ve taken everything the playwright can throw at us and absorbed the point – that England is proudly rotten to the core, mad and bad and dangerous to know – but there’s only one way to its inside track and that’s by playing the game, no matter how distasteful it may be.
The handsome 1972 film by Peter Medak garnered an Oscar nomination for the lead, Peter O’Toole, who was ably supported by Alistair Sim, Coral Browne, Arthur Lowe and William Mervyn.
So why hasn’t the play been performed for forty years? Well, since the heady sixties lurid black comedies and social satires like this have died on the vine, so like ‘Little Malcolm and his Struggle against the Eunuchs’ it probably took a star to drive it back to the stage. In the ‘Malcolm’ case it found a powerhouse lead in Ewan McGregor. Here we have James McAvoy occupying the centre stage for the role of a lifetime in what at preview stage is still a fairly rough-edged production.
Luckily, the lad himself is quicksilver-charming and enthrallingly alive, if not quite terrifying enough. Even as he’s throttling back word-streams of madness, McAvoy makes clear sense of a dense and demanding text. This is that rare piece, a writer’s play that allows for a single gigantic performance, and all director Jamie Lloyd has done is unleash McAvoy and hung onto his coat-tails, although Serena Evans, taking the Coral Browne role, stands her own ground and is uncannily good in the role.
The period hasn’t been updated – indeed, how could it have been? – but nor have 21st century parallels been pointed up, as if Lloyd couldn’t quite decide how to sharpen the play’s satirical edge. My only quibble is with the ugly set, which looks like it might have been dug from the mothballs of the original production. With such a star lead the play’s success is guaranteed; it will be interesting to see if it spearheads a Barnes revival.
NB. A warning about the audience. Our evening was filled with swooning women of a certain age who craned forward whenever the Earl removed his shirt and spent the rest of the evening texting and eating. By the time McAvoy appeared in a black silk Edwardian morning suit they were actually making weird cat noises. I think they missed the point of the play.