The Cane review – Mark Ravenhill's provocative look at power abuse

Royal Court, London
A deputy head’s historical deeds trouble his retirement in this tense drama starring Alun Armstrong, Nicola Walker and Maggie Steed

For the second time in a week on stage, a father’s confrontation with an estranged daughter becomes a way of examining society. Mark Ravenhill’s new play is less optimistic and more partisan than Mike Bartlett’s Snowflake, but nonetheless has the same ability to show how private lives can intertwine with public issues.

The cane of the title is a palpable object and a potent metaphor. Edward, a deputy head on the verge of retirement after 45 years, finds his home besieged by pupils demonstrating against his historic role in institutionalised corporal punishment. His wife, Maureen, veers between loyal ally and bullied victim, while his long-rejected daughter, Anna, turns up seeking to calm the situation and conceivably, as part of a local academy, make a bid for Edward’s failing school.

Nicola Walker as Anna and Alun Armstrong as Edward.
Institutionalised … Nicola Walker as Anna and Alun Armstrong as Edward. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

It seems unlikely that the police would ignore a public riot and, although Edward takes refuge in the fact that he was simply following school rules, he clearly represents a world of patriarchal authority. But Ravenhill is a subtle enough writer to show that Edward’s power has its limitations: he needs his daughter’s help in compiling a report for the school inspectors and his wife’s aid in climbing a ladder to the attic. While Anna stands for liberal values, her constant use of phrases such as “best practice” and “pupil voice” suggests she has also inherited her father’s inflexible belief in systems.

At 105 minutes, Ravenhill’s play is short, tense, provocative and very well directed by Vicky Featherstone. Chloe Lamford’s design, with its rotting staircase and looming attic, evokes a house that is both barren and besieged, and the acting is exemplary. Even if Alun Armstrong can’t arouse much sympathy for Edward, he shifts brilliantly between a schoolmasterly rationality and inexplicable rage. Maggie Steed captures exactly his wife’s enforced subjugation, and Nicola Walker skilfully suggests that the daughter’s progressive instincts mask a streak of cruelty. In the list of works about retiring teachers, this is a long way from Rattigan’s The Browning Version, but Ravenhill’s play directly confronts our present concerns with abuses of power.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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