Last seen onstage kicking up his (fairly high) heels in drag to play pantomime dame Widow Twankey in “Aladdin,” Ian McKellen would seem to be showing off his versatility by playing sober, besuited Paul in Mark Ravenhill’s stark and absorbing new play, “The Cut.” In fact, showing off is the very last thing on McKellen’s mind. This stage performance is the most ruthlessly unadorned he’s given in years.
Wasting no time, Ravenhill moves straight in on setting up his dystopic vision of the future. Paul, the central character of all three scenes, has a surprisingly genial tone that gives a particularly dangerous edge to his pronouncement to barefoot, black character John (a determined Jimmy Akingbola), “I’m Authority. Power. Strength. The Father.”
What he’s actually doing is preparing John for the Cut, a brutal, socially controlling, lobotomy-like procedure administered by the state to cut away “this history and this wanting.”
By necessity, this has to be kept secret from Paul’s family, most obviously his elegant wife, Susan (Deborah Findlay). Not unlike the wife in “Fahrenheit 451,” she is mildly sedated and oblivious to the horrors of her husband’s life. Or is she? By the end of the play, power has changed hands, but there’s more than a suggestion that the well-intentioned, revolutionary change may be not incontrovertibly positive.
What makes Ravenhill’s vision so unsettling is his future’s similarity to the past and present. Without ever being so crass as to draw direct parallels, his use of words and phrases like “core values,” “inclusion,” “performance targets” and so on is indicative of the fact that he’s casting more than a sidelong glance at contempo politics.
Michael Grandage’s production echoes this via a gracefully austere design that refuses to adopt sci-fi shorthand. Designer Paul Wills brings a black marble, almost art deco grandeur to the Donmar stage. The back wall is split by opaque glass brick towers through which Paule Constable’s magisterially chilly light gleams.
While best known for the graphic “Shopping and Fucking,” Ravenhill knows that, unlike film, theater thrives on metaphor and operates not through literal presentation but via the power of suggestion. Thus, like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, the Cut is the motivating plot point — like, say, the hidden uranium in “Notorious” — but its precise details are irrelevant. Ravenhill is far more interested in its corrosive effects not on the victims but on the man who performs this swiftly efficient torture.
Nothing delineates this more clearly than the thrillingly acted dinner with McKellen and Findlay at either end of a long dining table, a tableau of stifled communication reminiscent of the marital dining sequence from “Citizen Kane.” The script features no marked pauses, but Grandage extends the scene in rapt silence, knowing that actors as fine as these can hold an audience in thrall. But then, an almost unrivaled ability to sustain dramatic tension has always been at the heart of Grandage’s directing. He never lets an audience off the hook.
Even during scene changes, where other directors pause for breath — thus allowing tension to sag as the audience is temporarily pulled out of the drama — Grandage and his creative team keep their foot on the pedal. As the set fluidly turns from Paul and Susan’s home into a prison, Grandage adds a silent scene in which Susan meets her newly powerful son Stephen (Tom Burke) and shares a potent smile of, what, understanding, complicity? It’s a misty but absorbing moment that completely charges up the opening of the final scene in which son and father confront each other.
Nevertheless, the final scene remains the least effective. Until this point, Ravenhill has kept us guessing, but the cold inevitability of the confrontation is too predictable.
The weakness of the final scene notwithstanding, the play marks a serious advance in Ravenhill’s writing, previously not celebrated for its restraint.
Ravenhill once wrote of playwright Caryl Churchill, “I read ‘Top Girls’ once a year and weep.” Churchill’s influence, notably her even more spare, poetic fable about torture, “Far Away,” undeniably pervades “The Cut,” but its presence is benign.
Ravenhill has tamed his talent for visceral imagery and discovered an allusive and more subtly affecting voice, so much so that the painful truth-telling between husband and wife allows McKellen and Findlay to deliver one of the most powerful scenes on the London stage.
“The Cut” is already sold out at the Donmar and booking fast on its U.K. tour.