I should start out by saying that I had the good fortune of seeing “The Ruling Class” at Trafalgar Studios on the night it opened.. .and I kind of squandered that opportunity. The “morning after” said performance, I sat down at the computer all fired up to write one of those deep, meaningful, insightful and largely pompous reviews. I had planned to compare the structure of the play with Black Swan, Swan Lake and probably several other swan themes that I can’t remember anymore. (Parenthood = short term memory loss). But then I got lazy and distracted. (Oh look, a bright shiny object). So, by the time I got back to the idea of reviewing this, the “press night” had already happened and I realised that I had lost my window of opportunity for unique pretentiousness. By now there are lots of reviews out there that purport to give you the directors “vision” in detail, the relevance of the script placed on the scale of history and recent events, and will detail the nuances of James’ McAvoy’s performance ad infinitum and ad nauseam. So, as I said, there is not much more I can add to the snobby intellectual category. Instead I will stick with a more grounded and basic approach in my little review: what the play is about?, is it good / relevant? and who should go see it?
In short, it is about an upper class crazy guy who thinks he is God, and his scheming creepy family. James McAvoy plays “Jack”, the 14th Earl of Gurney who has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He returns to the family seat after seven years at a mental facility, proclaiming himself to be the holy trinity (not unlike many young adults returning home after their first year of University). When asked for proof of this, he says that when he talks to God in his head, he is the one who answers. It’s hard to argue with that, really. The family hatches a plot to marry him off in an effort to produce an heir. If said heir is produced then power can be transferred to the child and Jack can be sent back to the sanatorium. However, this all goes awry when the woman whom Jack is married off to actually seems to develop some feelings for him, and when he is later “cured” by therapy.
I should note that there are two very distinct acts to this play. The first is sharp, fast, witty, and more than a little bit sexual. It ends with a Jack experiencing a psychological “breakthrough”, in which he recognises who he is, and can resume his place in “normal” society. The second act makes mockery not only of the breakthrough but also of people’s “normal” perceptions about god, power and sexuality. This bit is dark, very dark, and more than a little disturbing…but more on that later. Is the play good and/or relevant? If you like a surreal script, this is the play for you. If you want a poignant and relevant topic, I would also argue that this is the play for you. I have seen a few reviewers snipe about the topic being somewhat archaic. If you think that, then you are viewing the concept of “rule” very narrowly. If you can’t see the relevance of examining the dangers of rule, class striation and the portrayal of God as angry and vengeful by those with an agenda…then you have been asleep at the wheel for the past few months.
The acting, by all cast members, is brilliant. Ron Cook, as Sir Charles Gurney is calculating and sleazy but believably so. Serena Evans, as Lady Claire Gurney, is strangely likeable despite a jaded facade. This makes her treatment at the hands of Jack during Act II even more powerful. Joshua McGuire, as Dinsdale Gurney, has some of the funniest lines and great comic timing. James McAvoy is James McAvoy, and one of the few actors who could pull off a character like Jack. To play a character who has to be crazy, tortured, sexy, narcissistic, nihilist, innocent, murderous, defiled and admired (to name just a few) in the space of three hours is no mean feat but he pulls it off. He does tortured and crazy so well that sometimes its hard not to wonder if he’s actually acting. But whether he is or isn’t, he is riveting and almost painfully charismatic on a stage. When you add in a well crafted script, a fast paced plot and very relevant social themes, this gives you not just an engaging three hours, but lots of food for thought afterwards.
Which brings me to my last point. Who should go see this? Anyone who doesn’t mind examining the structure and impact of power on individuals and societies. Friends who want to get into a debate about said nature of power in a pub after the show. Foreigners who want an, admittedly disturbing, overview of the class system in England. Women who want to see James McAvoy riding a unicycle in his underwear. A more interesting question is “who should NOT go see this play?” The answer is ANYONE HOPING TO HAVE SEX THAT EVENING!! Really, this is NOT a date night event. I can’t stress that enough. This play has a very visceral sexual creepiness. I think part of this stems from the fact that the character of “Jack” is actually quite sexy, in a disturbed mental patient kind of way…in Act I. However, the arc of the character in the second Act moves from an innocent, quirky, open sexiness to a sexual repression that can only express itself in perversion and violence. There are some graphic scenes, but its not the depictions of sex that will kill all hope of getting laid later in the evening. It’s the presentation of sex as power…and power that is deeply rotten at the core. Honestly, I think this element of it would creep out the folks over at kink dot com. Any hope of salvaging your romance for the evening would mean leaving at intermission. As I have now informed you of this, you are left with a randiness vs intellect mental calculation to make. If you stay to the end, your mate will be unlikely to be in the mood for anything afterward besides conversation. If this is NOT the case, then you might to consider getting concerned. The reason that I titled this article in the way that I did was that this was not the first time that I encountered the “no sex after seeing a play” phenomenon. The last time was after MacBeth last year at Trafalgar, which was also a McAvoy / Lloyd collaboration. OK, yeah, it was MacBeth, so the fact that it was going to be disturbing was a given. But that whole “Lady MacBeth uses her feminine wiles to talk her husband into butchering a king who had been nothing but nice to them” was quite intense in this version and it really did nothing to put a person in an amorous mood. So, is this coincidence? I don’t know, but I can make a very interesting and amusing conspiracy theory out of the facts here. So, as I suspect that there will be another collaboration of these men, I would ask a favour. Seeing as how the work has been exceptional, could they please collaborate on something that portrays sex in a positive light? I bet they could do a kick ass job of revamping “The Long Hot Summer”. Just a thought.