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London Theater Review: ‘The Cane’

The tense, timely new play by Mark Ravenhill raises incisive questions about injustice and reparation.

Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed, Nicola Walker.

1 hour 45 minutes

The Cane” lands with a thwack — a timely intervention in a topical debate. By dredging up the specter of corporal punishment in British schools, Mark Ravenhill’s terse allegorical drama asks how we handle historic injustices. Can old complaints be forgot? Or should we seek redress, judging the past by present-day standards? The question’s incisive; answers are elusive.

A student mob has laid siege to a retiring teacher’s home. As deputy head, Edward (Alun Armstrong) doled out canings to disobedient pupils until the practice was banned in 1986. Now his current crop, dismissed as “snowflakes” by his haughty wife Maureen (Maggie Steed), is demanding accountability. Their daughter Anna (Nicola Walker), a teacher herself, has more sympathy with the students’ cause.

She may have other motives, given a long rift with her father. It’s been years since they exchanged birthday cards — a neat nod to the way we let the years slide by. Has Anna come to help and heal, or to revel in the downfall of her disciplinarian dad? Their educational philosophies clash: Edward saw his daughter’s advocacy of the new academy system — which swept away schools like his own with efficiency savings and red tape — as an irredeemable betrayal. But the rancor between them reaches into their own family history: the scar tissue between a stern father and an unruly child. The beige front room bristles with hostility, recriminations ricocheting off the walls.

Director Vicky Featherstone’s staging sometimes lets that tension slip — the students outside sound too canned to muster genuine threat — but it picks at the welts raised with unflinching articulacy. An unsettling, off-kilter atmosphere edges the action into allegory, and Edward’s canings quickly come to stand for all sorts of age-old crimes. At times, he resembles a Nazi sympathizer with secrets in his attic; at others, just your common domestic patriarch facing a revolution at home. Steed’s Maureen slides from imperious loyalty to quivering resentment as, encouraged by Anna, the prospect of revenge rears its head.

Yet Ravenhill treads a fine tightrope, careful to cultivate a queasy moral ambivalence. “The Cane” is quick to condemn historic crimes, but equally wary of violent redress. Armstrong’s curt and unrepentant Edward can cut a meek, sympathetic figure, complicit in institutional violence, but not solely culpable. Walker lets a sadistic streak shine through Anna’s stern exterior, hardly a flicker of feeling for her father’s fate. She’s rightly indignant about the wrongs of corporal punishment, but Ravenhill stresses the cruelty of Anna’s own approach to education. Its staff cuts and results culture seem no less inhumane, as students sit, eyes front, in eerie silence. Today’s standards may, in time, seem equally unenlightened.

Chloe Lamford’s domestic design picks up that thread: a dour, distressed living room looms upwards, out of proportion and out of time. Chintzy wallpaper peels off damp walls. The stairs are rotten with decay. Yet elegant vintage furniture suggests that some fashions survive or simply roll around. A quaint, old-fashioned painting of elephants – either a grazing herd or a charging mob – stirs other ideas into the mix: endangered species, accepted cruelties, colonial history.

Cleverly, Ravenhill’s writing is characterized by the cane itself: strict, stern, even punishing at times. His dialogue is short and sharp; every other line leaves a sting. It feels too harsh to be fully human, too severe for a real family reunion. His drama is disciplinarian too, as if the writer has limited himself to the bare minimum — three people, an empty room and a few crucial props. “The Cane” has an air of resolute austerity: Ravenhill must make the most of what little he’s got.

Mostly he does, largely by loading — perhaps overloading – “The Cane” with potential threats: ladders that wobble, axes stored under staircases and, of course, the cane itself, swaddled in a blanket in the attic upstairs. Forget Chekhov’s gun. This is Ravenhill’s arsenal and he knows how to use it. His point is that any object of violence will eventually — inevitably — be put to use, but his play is spoilt for choice. It lingers, torturously, over its dramatic possibilities, toying with its audience until its menace becomes meandering, only to make its mark again at the last as “The Cane” finally lands its blows.

London Theater Review: 'The Cane'

Royal Court Theatre, London; 450 seats; £49 ($61) top. Opened Dec. 12, 2018; reviewed Dec 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Production: A Royal Court production of a play in one act by Mark Ravenhill.

Creative: Directed by Vicky Featherstone; Design, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, David McSeveney; fight direction, Bret Yount.

Cast: Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed, Nicola Walker.

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