The Cane

‘Tell them…! Tell them…! Tell them…!’ Shouts Alun Armstrong, disgraced deputy headmaster Edward, as he brandishes the eponymous cane in one hand whilst walls close in around him. It is his last stand against a world where secondary school students can mobilise against their guardians, a world where the histories of headmasters can be uprooted from the obscurity of an archive, and thrust into the woke inquisition of the present.

Education, and systems of education, is the lifeblood of this family. And this is a play about blood.

Mark Ravenhill’s script wants to have an argument about power in academia and gets on with it. The play opens with Maureen (Maggie Steed) as she sidesteps questions from her estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker). Outside, children and teenagers lay siege to their house. Anna wants to know why – and Maureen will not tell her. Instead, Maureen deflects to anything else, namely the past – a clearly unhappy time that means family estrangement is less a tragic consequence and more a mutual symbiosis. Although Anna never fully explains what she does at work, it’s apparent she leads on school Academy policy in a substantial way. She seems to have immense oversight, meaning she is at least a senior project manager or a gatekeeper of the Academy movement itself. To her parents, she presents herself as a report-writer. This is not believable when she exposes the reach of her own power over them.

Education, and systems of education, is the lifeblood of this family. And this is a play about blood.

Although Mark Ravenhill’s script is violent and intelligent, it struggles to convert its thematic argument into believable action. The play demands a very large buy-in from the audience, in which a fairly magnanimous suspension of disbelief is required for events in the play to believed. A seven-day riot outside a deputy-headmaster’s house would no doubt attract police support, as well as press interest. But neither appear in this play. Similarly, the final twist – which hinges around Anna’s masterplan – isn’t persuasive enough. This is a jarring note to finish on, when the body of the play depends upon three educational experts battling over the right to educate.

Chloe Lamford’s set design is the outstanding aspect of the show. Lamford has designed an exquisitely drab living room, in which the scars of the past are obliquely obvious. As an open space it is gaunt, harrowing, and enormous. It is the domestic version of swimming into open water and feeling the moment the shallows plunge away into an abyss below. Edward has not built a happy family. Alun Armstrong’s character shows little emotional depth other than indifference and rage. The only time we see a sense of care is when Edward finally unveils the cane itself.

In its simplest form, Ravenhill uses the cane as a yardstick to measure where society has changed and where it hasn’t. The script presents a legacy of savagery which began with Edward and has been transferred to Anna. The prejudices of the conservative schoolmaster and the neoliberal reformer are almost exactly alike. We see the nuances of caning – it was not just an arbitrary object of cruelty, Edward explains, there was a system – involving parents, permission, and performance. The act of taking the cane off the wall before administering the strokes to a student was in itself an act of simulating power. Without it, neither the school-child nor the school-master can function in their roles. Edward’s excuses and descriptions are heartfelt, as are Anna’s refutations.

A horror film can be spoiled by revealing the monster. Similarly, the cane is not a persuasive enough symbol to build an entire play around. There is something missing, and frustratingly Ravenhill’s script touches upon a separately fascinating issue without mining the narrative value there. Edward’s expositions about the cane are long, regular, and delivered with a kind of wide-eyed fetishism, similar to how collectors of Nazi memorabilia or Confederate iconography explain their own attraction to objects of hate. There is something deeply unhealthy about the private collection and maintenance of these artefacts, and Ravenhill creates a script which presents the problem of savage curation without interrogating the motivations within. It feels like a missed opportunity. As such, the cane is just a cane. When the act of caning finally takes place, it feels light. After so much build-up, and after no gear-changes in pace and action, there is very little pay-off.

Ravenhill’s script is intelligent, and Vicky Featherstone’s direction is accomplished and knows when to be unflinching and spartan. Words are war, education is power, and reform can be its own kind of abuse. But Chloe Lamford’s set design, with its peeling wallpaper, broken staircases and hungry ceilings, is a chilling space that evokes personal ruin. A fitting frame for three flawed characters, who do nothing but hurt each other from the outset, and will do so until the bitter end.

Reviews by Skot Wilson

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

After 45 years as a dedicated teacher, Edward is looking forward to the imminent celebration to mark his retirement. But his home is under siege. A mob of angry students have gathered. A brick has been thrown through the window, he and his wife haven’t left the house for six days, and now his estranged daughter has arrived with her own questions.

“Why would they attack the most popular teacher in the school?”

Mark Ravenhill’s previous work for the Royal Court includes Over There (& Schaubühne, Berlin), Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat and Shopping and Fucking.

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