Lissy Lovett watches a play about privilege and society (from the cheap seats).
The Ruling Class is the latest play in the second Trafalgar Transformed season at London’s Trafalgar Studios – a series of plays (overseen by director Jamie Lloyd) which aim to show “politically-charged, socially conscious theatre”, while engaging new and younger audiences – which is no mean feat without public subsidy in the commercial theatre sector.
Written by Peter Barnes in 1968, The Ruling Class is part of a tradition of surreal British humour – sitting between Roger Milner’s play How’s The World Treating You in 1965 and the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969. The characters are brash and over the top, odd things happen and the tone of a scene can suddenly change halfway through.
The story concerns the fourth son of a peer of the realm, Jack (James McAvoy) who suddenly becomes the 14th Earl of Gurney after his father accidentally kills himself in a bit of misjudged autoasphyxiation. Jack seemingly believes himself to be God due to his possible paranoid schizophrenia and his extended family then spend some time trying to work out how they can keep the title, money and privilege in the family whilst sidelining the new Earl. It’s a play about class, society and what passes for normal. It’s also a pretty wordy play, and the cast did really well to keep the action flowing and the audience engaged. There are frequent allusions to a history of Music Hall, with the cast breaking out into excellently choreographed song and dance routines at key moments, some scenes being played out in front of curtains whilst scenery is changed behind them, and actors speaking directly to the audience.
Some of the financial success of the Trafalgar Transformed season is down to star casting which ensures good audience figures; a vital part of commercial theatre. This can backfire if the star name isn’t up to scratch. So I’m really happy to report that McAvoy very much deserves his central part in this production. He’s an energetic, charismatic and almost balletic performer. His actions and his words are all extremely specific and he commits to them utterly. He handles the sudden changes of pace and style in the script with aplomb and his performance reached right to the very back row of the auditorium where I was sat.
I got the strong impression that McAvoy’s first entrance onto the stage had been cleverly and carefully directed by Lloyd in order to minimise any possibility of the audience breaking out into awful spontaneous applause, and if I’m right about this it was very well done.
The rest of the cast are also excellent. Elliot Levey as the (foreign) Dr Herder manages to be both calm and exasperated with the machinations of the Gurney family at one and the same time. Serena Evans as Lady Claire Gurney is self-controlled and elegant, running rings around her on-stage husband and son. Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley manages the change from appearing to be a mere working-class pawn in the games of the ruling class, to being a powerful force in the family herself, very well.
The auditorium of Trafalgar Studios main theatre has been rejigged for these productions and the space works very well. (It’s still not particularly clear why what is clearly a fairly standard theatre is referred to as a “studio” but that’s probably outside the remit of this review.) The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour is a really beautiful mix of wood, shades of turquoise and Victoriana and really works well with the play. And those dance routines are a highlight; the choreographer, Darren Carnall, has made the best of the abilities of the cast. That said, from my seat, some of the sound balance was slightly off in the songs, drowning out some of the lyrics, but that’s a minor quibble.
Watching this play in 2015 a couple of things gave me pause for thought. Firstly, the cast is nearly all men, which is kind of a shame, and it wouldn’t stand up to a theatrical version of the Bechdel Test very well. Secondly, I feel slightly uncomfortable with a mental illness, in this case paranoid schizophrenia, being used as shorthand for being outside society. I may be being oversensitive here – particularly when the play uses an equal or greater number of class prejudices – but it feels slightly wrong to treat mental illness like a funny thing that only happens to other people. And trite to make conclusions like “all the upper classes are mad anyway!” when people in lower socioeconomic groups are far more likely to experience the negative effects of mental illness.
It’s boring to watch a play from the 60s and remark on how relevant it seems to the world today, but in the case of The Ruling Class such a remark is definitely true. The play is about what it means to have privilege, how English society views arbitrary hierarchies as somehow a natural order, and how frequently the the things we choose to accept or choose to be shocked by make little to no sense. We can read nearly any newspaper on nearly any day to see why the play still matters.
Overall Lloyd and his cast have done a smashing job bringing this play back to the stage, and it’s definitely worth a watch, not just because of the social commentary, or it’s place in British theatrical history, but because of the funny lines, fine performances and its overwhelming energy.
The Ruling Class runs until 11th April and you can buy tickers here. There is a captioned performance for deaf, deafened and hard of hearing audiences on Monday 9th February and an audio described performance for blind and partially sighted audiences on Monday 9th March. All Monday tickets cost £15 and these tickets go on sale on the 2nd of each month.
Lissy Lovett doesn’t watch films very often and tweets here.