The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

The Cane

Royal Court Theatre, 21st January 2019

Somehow, until now, the Tourist has failed to see any of the work of Mark Ravenhill, either as writer, performer or director, or even his columns in the Guardian, surprising given the Tourist’s status as a paid up Guardianista. There was a recent revival of his breakthrough play, Shopping and Fucking, at the Lyric Hammersmith, but sadly the performance the Tourist signed up for was cancelled. (Made worse by the fact that the Tourist had gone straight to the theatre from an outing elsewhere during a period of deliberate mobile phone estrangement. It should be possible to chuck the bloody thing away, and to this day the Tourist doggedly persists without data, ring-tone or any social media, but realistically the everyday organisation of modern life prohibits a complete embargo. That, and the unhealthy compulsion to surf free wi-fi so as to rubber-neck the latest instalment in the Brexit car-crash).

Anyway the chance to see Mr Ravenhill’s latest play, after a hiatus of many years, at the ever reliable Royal Court, and its apparent subject, the education system, was not to be missed, and the SO agreed. Especially when directed by RC AD Vicky Featherstone and with a cast comprising Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker. You will know all three off the telly, but their stage appearances are all too rare, though Maggie Steed was in the first instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s current Pinter anthology, and it was a privilege to watch Nicola Walker’s brand of nervy, restless emotional plasticity being applied to the role of Beatrice in Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge.

Vicky Featherstone kicks off proceedings at a fair lick as we learn that Edward’s (Alum Armstrong) retirement as a teacher after 45 dedicated years is being disturbed by his historical engagement with capital punishment and by his school’s imminent takeover by an academy. There is a mob of kids outside Edward and Maureen’s (Maggie Steed) house and their estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) has now turned up. It is a somewhat improbable set up but no matter. Mt Ravenhill uses this as a jumping off point to explore the uneasy relationship between the fretful couple and their seething daughter, how we apply the morality of the present to actions in the past, how much responsibility an individual should assume, and how much an institution, for excessive punishment and how violence and disciple become conflated, accepted and even internalised,

Within this tricky web Mark Ravenhill, using precise and considered language, cleverly shifts moral perspectives around and between the questions and the characters, sometimes even on a line by line basis. He asks a lot of questions but is never so crass as to give clear answers. There is a constant undercurrent of tension and hostility fuelled by the subject matter, and the symbolic cane, the weight of the past and the menacing family dynamic, visually realised in Chloe Lamford’s off-kilter, grim, and increasingly claustrophobic, set. The three actors are superb in the way they draw us in to this queasy moral maze. The looks they give each other, the barbs that they spit out, the arguments they advance and retreat from, the flashes of violence and acquiescence, all are expressively portrayed. However, over the unbroken 100 minutes or so, the flaws of all three characters become unremitting, the premise becomes over-stretched and just a teensy bit too slippery and the dialogue just a bit too predictably adversarial.

It made us squirm, it made us think and the acting is top notch. But this is a play that deliberately sets the audience outside its world. Fair enough but it might have worked better for us in more concentrated form, or with some eventual solid pay-off to all the rug-pulls and hypocrisy exposures.

Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****

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Oedipus

Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018

The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.

What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.

I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.

Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.

How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).

Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.

Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.

So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.

The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.

But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.

What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).

The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.

So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.

Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.