To a contempo American sensibility, this revival of Simon Gray’s 1971 play is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it features a bravura perf from Dominic West in the title role, a character who makes Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire” look like a model of self-awareness and restraint: a brilliant, bitter, self-destructive academic on a downward spiral, doing his best to take his nearest and dearest with him. But just what the play is saying, and its position on what comes across now as the achingly obvious source of Butley’s problems — he’s a repressed, self-loathing homosexual — is difficult to fathom.
Play takes place over the long span of one day in Butley’s office at a London university, which he shares with his friend, protege, and sometime flatmate Joey Keyston (Martin Hutson), who is gay. Butley spends his time avoiding work and teasing — to the point of harassing — Joey about his new relationship with Reg (Paul McGann), a Northerner who we meet in play’s second act. As the play progresses, a pile of bad news mounts: Butley’s estranged wife Anne (Amanda Drew) arrives to tell him she’s taking up with one of his rivals; he’s caught poaching students from a high-strung colleague (Penny Downie); and, worst of all, Joey decides to move in with Reg, leaving Butley in the position he clearly most fears: alone with his thoughts and demons.
It’s difficult, particularly for non-natives, to discern whether Gray is telling the story of one screwed-up individual (who is understood to be a largely autobiographical figure), or whether he’s making a wry critique of the intellectually and culturally privileged, but emotionally empty, public school-educated chattering classes.
A further complication is sexuality. From today’s perspective it seems clear that Butley is in denial that he’s in love with Joey, but helmer Lindsay Posner and the cast don’t seem to have a clear position on the issue. Throughout West plays the character as driven by some kind of mischievous, garrulous, self-destructive energy, revealing himself only in brief silent moments alone when sadness cascades down his craggy, expressive face.
But West’s also given to moments of high camp (knowing tone, head cocked, chest puffed out, eyes rolling upwards), which come across as bold performances of a self-aware gay sensibility when they are perhaps intended as cruel moments of denial and mockery. Toning down this flamboyance might help the production make its points more clearly.
Hutson does a fine job in communicating Joey’s simultaneous affection for and exasperation with Butley, and Downie has some great comic moments as the perennially-in-a-flap Edna. But the night belongs to West. Though the play now feels like a confused period piece, he proves his chops yet again as a stage actor of mercurial power.