Mark Ravenhill raises “The Cane”

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EARLY in “The Cane”, Maureen is asked by her daughter why there is a baying mob outside the house and why they have thrown a brick through the window. “Because they’re snowflakes,” she replies. “They can’t stand that the past wasn’t just the same as today.” The same thing, in reverse, could be said of Maureen and her husband Edward, who caned hundreds of boys in his years as a deputy headmaster. On the verge of retirement, details of his past actions have leaked. The couple have not left their home in days.

Mark Ravenhill’s claustrophobic play, which premiered at the Royal Court in London last month, has only three characters and a plain room for a set. Maureen, Edward and Anna are waiting for the head of the school to arrive: he will tell them what to do, he will tell them what is right and wrong. Like Godot, he’s expected any minute. As they hold fast, the family talks and generational differences come to the fore. Edward and Maureen do not seek to excuse the past practice of caning schoolboys who misbehaved. It was a different time, they reason. Such behaviour was normal. Anna, who teaches at an academy (a British school model funded by a combination of central government and private-sector sponsors), argues that it doesn’t matter what it looked like then, the issue is what it looks like now. They must recognise the wrong, they must apologise, they must be transparent.

Shifting social mores is a preferred topic of the playwright. Mr Ravenhill is a leading light of “in-yer-face” theatre, a confrontational style of British drama that came to prominence in the 1990s. A series of abrasive and provocative early plays, such as his debut “Shopping and Fucking” (1996), cemented his reputation as an enfant terrible. The drug-fuelled nihilism and graphic on-stage sex made headlines, but the most interesting side of his work has always been the themes of abuse, the corrupting influence of power and the reappraisal—and repercussions—of historic acts. “The Cane”, directed by Vicky Featherstone, finds Mr Ravenhill addressing these themes in a calmer voice. The body remains the battleground, but sex has been removed from the equation.

That may sound a little tame for one of theatre’s famous iconoclasts, but “The Cane” is not a flat, didactic exercise in opinion-swapping. Each character—the neglected daughter, the mother stuck in a cruel marriage, the father now hated for carrying out then-accepted duties of his office—cannot help feeling something about what they’ve done or had done to them. Their attempts to hide their emotion create tension, and contrast starkly with the passionate and determined mob outside. 

They express themselves in platitudes instead. Both young and old use the semantic camouflage of their eras and workplaces, hurling jargon at one another. Anna talks of “best practice” and “eyes forward” schooling. Edward and Maureen trumpet “principles” and, in a painful attempt to keep up with modern parlance, congratulate themselves on their “inclusivity”. But these are society’s thoughts, not theirs. What they think is far harder to know. When Edward delivers a final speech about how the perpetrators of crimes such as his must be punished, the audience cannot tell if he believes it or if he is spouting, even mocking, received opinion.

Mr Ravenhill’s new play may be less visceral and shocking than some of his previous work, but the questions it raises linger longer in the mind. When the past is re-examined, how should it be judged? If deeds and practices are found to be unacceptable, does responsibility lie with the system or the individual? Can one ever be divorced from the other? It is a raw subject, and “The Cane” leaves a mark.

“The Cane” is showing at the Royal Court in London until January 26th 

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