On London Stages, the Atmosphere Is Tragic | Modern Society of USA

On London Stages, the Atmosphere Is Tragic

On London Stages, the Atmosphere Is Tragic

LONDON — Tragedy is the order of the day on the London stage right now, and by the end of the uninterrupted 100 minutes of Mark Ravenhill’s “The Cane,” an intimate, tightly contained drama has acquired a seismic force.

The three-character play, and the director Vicky Featherstone’s pitch-perfect production, are on the main stage of the Royal Court Theater through Jan. 26. And yet a continued life seems all but guaranteed for this latest offering from the writer of “Shopping and … ,” the provocative play with the unprintable title that began at the Court in 1996 before moving to the West End and Off Broadway.

A domestic drama, a societal indictment and a report from the battered front line of education, “The Cane” charts a trajectory from celebration to vilification. Edward (Alun Armstrong, bruised and bruising) is preparing for his retirement party at the state school where he has worked for nearly a half-century. No teacher, Edward’s fretful wife, Maureen (Maggie Steed), informs us early on, has been so loved.

If Maureen’s comment is to be believed, how then to explain the gathering hordes (unseen) of student protesters who have arrived at the couple’s home in such numbers that neither spouse feels able to go outside? Edward’s crime, it seems, is to have administered caning back in the day when that time-honored British custom was still the norm. (The practice was outlawed in state schools in 1986 and in private institutions more than a decade later.)

The past has come to haunt the aging Edward’s present, specifically in the form of his daughter, Anna (Nicola Walker, characteristically superb), a one-person mob of her own. The sort of ever-enraged child who once took an ax to the featureless room in which the family has assembled (the wall bears the scars of her rage), Anna is a justice-seeking fury. She would be right at home among the Greek tragedies that “The Cane” comes to resemble.

Mr. Ravenhill knows his theater, and you feel not just the influence of the Greeks but also Ibsen and Beckett stalking the treacherous confines of his play.

The presence, crucial to the unfolding narrative, of a tall if rickety ladder contains shivery echoes of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” another play in which a female outsider sends a male protagonist toppling to his doom. And there’s more than a trace of Beckett’s famously absent Godot to the Head, Edward’s boss, whose arrival is keenly anticipated, though how he would get through the marauders outside is anyone’s guess.

“The Cane” anatomizes a world rife with and alive to violence at every turn and disturbs in a way that Mr. Ravenhill’s more obviously confrontational early work didn’t quite manage; this is a far more assured piece of writing. And arriving as it did at the end of a year notably lacking in good British plays, “The Cane” has set a commendably high standard for the year ahead.

Across town, at north London’s Almeida Theater through Feb. 2, the director Joe Hill-Gibbins is also exploring suffering. He has cracked a canonical Shakespeare play wide open, to deliver the mercilessness and anger at its luxuriantly worded heart.

I’m referring to “The Tragedy of King Richard the Second,” which is the elaborate title here given to a frequently performed history play that usually goes by “Richard II.” (That, indeed, will be the name when it is revived in a separate production next month at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and performed entirely by women of color.)

Mr. Hill-Gibbins, true to his own idiosyncratic, arresting form, has put the text through a shredder and come out with a heavily filleted version. Performed in modern dress within a cell-like space containing buckets labeled “water” and “blood,” the production starts near the end of the expansive original and compresses an incident-packed narrative into 100 minutes performed by a gender-blind, stern-faced cast of eight, many of whom take multiple roles.

The self-evident calling card is the appearance of the great Simon Russell Beale in the title role, a part for which he might seem too old on paper — Richard II was 33 when he died and Mr. Russell Beale will soon be 58 — but that he inhabits with the naturalness and ease with verse that are his long-cherished trademarks.

Mr. Hill-Gibbins makes you aware of the tensions coursing through this portrait of a divinely anointed king who learns too late what it is to be a human. But when his leading man steps forward to ruminate upon Richard’s lonely and too-brief life, the prevailing aggression of the production — this is the most physical “Richard II” in years — gives way to a glimpse of a fallen monarch with the soul of a poet.

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