DirectorStephen Daldry loves to tear theaters (literally) apart, so why shouldn’t he inaugurate a West End season of Royal Court “classics” with a play, “Rat in the Skull,” that does the same to audiences? In 1984, Ron Hutchinson’s fireball of a play anatomized northern Ireland’s “troubles,” tapping into the fear in the air at the time. Eleven years — and a fragile ceasefire — later, what the play calls “the grammar of hate” lives on. If one feels calmer on London streets than one did a decade ago, Hutchinson’s nervy view of mankind at its most primal is no less unnerving today.
Daldry’s approach on this occasion recalls his Royal Court staging two seasons ago of Arnold Wesker’s “The Kitchen,” in which he covered over the stalls to allow for the environmental, and often fractious, hum of a kitchen staff gearing up for combat. “Rat in the Skull” has a cast a fraction the size of the previous play, but William Dudley’s smart design, bitingly lit by Rick Fisher, follows the same concept: Gone is the Duke of York’s proscenium in favor of an arena space traversed by metal walkways and encircled by scaffolding amid which sits the audience, heads poking up like so many rats in a cage.
The look suggests a fight to the finish, and so “Rat in the Skull” very nearly proves to be, though not before arriving at a finish far more reverberative than one might expect. At first, the focus is on IRA detainee Roche (Rufus Sewell), pictures of whose battered, bruised mug line the three-tiered auditorium alongside other images of his bruised country. As police spill on to the gangways and floodlights sweep the stage, Roche pivots in his chair, recounting how he ended up in the interrogation room at London’s Paddington Green police station.
Roche’s ballsy monologue starts the play, only to be superseded by a second voice — that of detective inspector Nelson (Tony Doyle), a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who finds in Roche a logical recipient for a lifetime’s bile and, equally, a kinship of sorts. Roche and Nelson may be speaking at one another across an invisible divide, but their sectarian differences fall away when confronted with the casual loathing of the English, in the face of which Doyle has no choice but to admit of Roche in a cri de coeur, “He is my own.”
Max Stafford-Clark’s spare (and first-rate) premiere — later seen Off Broadway at the Public — sticks in the memory as an electrifying showpiece for its lead, Brian Cox,whose burly Nelson seemed destined to take his place in a lineup of riven Irishmen dating back to O’Casey, Synge and beyond. Doyle doesn’t have Cox’s thespian weight, though he’s certainly fierce enough as he bears down on the sullen Roche, and the result is a play whose four principals all get their own sad, rich aria to sing: The play no longer functions as one long, if searing, soliloquy.
Besides Roche, played by a noticeably hoarse Sewell (late of “Arcadia”) as if bleeding actual venom, Hutchinson has written two great roles for the English Metropolitan police who preside over the Irish duo’s lethal mating dance. Superintendent Harris (John Castle), like Nelson, claims Roche as one of his, but the emphasis in his case is on ownership and control, not on any recognition of a bond. The young PC Naylor (Pearce Quigley, inheriting a part originated by Gary Oldman) may have joined the anti-terrorist unit because he “fell for the advert,” but behind his toadyish facade lies the casually dismissive attitude of a man who would solve Ireland’s problems by sinking the country into the sea.
“My crime is breathing,” Roche says late on, and he could be speaking for the citizenry of any country whose people are cleansed, purged, or abused for the simple fact of being alive. The ongoing pertinence of its theme is one reason why “Rat in the Skull” has in no way dated; another is that a decade-plus following its premiere, it remains among the few political dramas to leave even the least politicized of spectators breathless.